The holiday season is upon us, and that means that we need to get ready for hours of family time! To ensure that your "quality time" with relatives is quality without the quotation marks, I highly recommend that you play some board games. They keep everyone occupied with doing something together, but conveniently distract from possible conversations about religion and politics. Everybody wins.
Of course, your family may not be full of gamers who are ready to throw down the moment somebody says Twilight Imperium (that one can take 6 hours with experienced players...). One of the keys to having a good time is choosing the right games. So how do you become a gaming sommelier to your grandmother who only wants to play the classics from her childhood? Check out my holiday gaming guide!
For Families That Like Trivial Pursuit:
I remember playing men vs. women Trivial Pursuit with my family and having a great time. My little brother enjoyed it less—the women usually won. However, I had no idea what most of the answers were. (I had never watched Howdy Doody or paid attention to sportsball. How the hell was I supposed to answer these questions??)
Fortunately, modern game designers have found a solution to your problem! You can now play trivia games without having to be a walking encyclopedia!
My first recommendation in this category is America. In this trivia game, you get credit for being close to the correct answer. You can also score by betting on other family members who probably know the answers—as well as for betting against people who you think are completely wrong. This is a trivia game that allows everyone to be involved even if they don't know all (or any of) the answers. It's the most accessible trivia game I know, and it does a great job of not making players feel bad about themselves when they should be having fun.
I would also recommend Timeline, which is actually a whole series of games now. Go ahead and pick your flavor! You can try Timeline: Music and Cinema, Timeline: American History, or even Timeline: Science and Discoveries. In all versions, you try to play cards from your hand in the correct sequence in relation to other events, e.g. Which came first, Watergate or Woodstock? Even if you're wrong, you'll end up learning a lot, and you can actually make guesses instead of being flat-out wrong.
For Families That Like To Give Each Other A Hard Time:
Do you ever feel like family gatherings turn into one big laugh at your many shortcomings? There is a way to channel that negative energy, and that way is... Stipulations. The tagline is "Let your negativity shine!" The concept of the game is that each round, one player chooses something good—a superpower, a lifetime supply of something, a fulfilled dream—and the rest of the players come up with a stipulation that would completely ruin it. If you've ever told your family that you started a YouTube channel about board games, then you know that they already know how to play this game. Plus, you get a chance to hold your own by ruining their dreams, too! Another good thing about Stipulations is that since you are coming up with your own responses, the game can be as G-rated or R-rated as you like.
For Monopoly-Loving Families
For families that have nearly murdered each other over Monopoly for generations, there are several less deadly alternatives.
The first I would recommend is Ticket to Ride. It's got some of the same feeling of growth and development because you play as a railroad tycoon. However, there is no die rolling—only selection of different-colored train cards—and you have a lot more choice about how you want to play. Do you want to take risks and try to build ambitious train routes? Do you want to play more conservatively but also spend time blocking other people? The choice is yours! This game is easy to learn for players of all ages, and there are now plenty of "flavors" to choose from if you'd like to try train maps from different parts of the world.
And for relatives who just feel more comfortable seeing the word "monopoly," I recommend Monopoly Gamer. It's faster, more entertaining, and highly appealing to kids because you play as familiar Nintendo characters. If Monopoly is too long for you, you should try this version. It's pretty fun and doesn't wear out its welcome before the game even hits the halfway point.
For Families That Prefer Pictionary
If your family is more artistically inclined, I highly recommend Telestrations. Imagine a game of "telephone," but instead of interpreting what someone says, you are trying to understand what they were trying to draw. Mistakes will be made. This game is hilarious and can be played by family members of all ages. There is also a party pack that can accommodate up to 12 people, so it's fantastic for very large gatherings.
If your family is a bit more devious, you can also try Fake Artist. In this game, you are all working together to create an image—but one of you is a "fake artist" who doesn't actually know what they are supposed to be drawing. All players know the category (e.g. animal), but the fake artist won't know what exactly you are supposed to be drawing (e.g. a cat). Everyone at the table takes turns adding to the drawing. The goal of the fake artist is to figure out what the drawing is supposed to be before he or she gets caught. Everyone else is supposed to add to the drawing in ways that don't give too much away—all while trying to identify the fake artist and convince everyone that it isn't them!
Happy Holiday Gaming!
I hope this little guide has given you some inspiration as you plan to spend time with the people who love you the most, but who possibly drive you the craziest. If there are any other categories of game you'd like recommendations for, leave a note in the comments!
Yesterday on Twitter, Suzanne Sheldon (@425suzanne) tweeted that her search for "Forbidden Island" pulled up a lot of romance novels. That got me thinking. These proposed board game romance novels are the unfortunate result. (But hey, if Colonel Sanders can have his own romance novel, anyone can!)
1. Love Sick
Aide Perez is close to getting her Ph.D. in virology, but she doesn't leave her work in the lab--Pandemic is her favorite board game, and she can't wait to play the first season of Pandemic: Legacy. That is, until Zack Steele injects himself into her campaign with his big biceps and bigger ego. He's the CEO of a large company, and it shows. She's never seen more of an alpha player in her life! Yet Aide's mind is contaminated by thoughts of sweeping those disease cubes off of the table and having her way with Zack. What is wrong with her, and can she cure it before there's an outbreak?
Zack admires Aide for her brilliance and ambition, but sometimes, she needs to let someone else play the role of scientist. Their Pandemic: Legacy campaign would be a lot more fun if she would just relax and enjoy the game—and Zack knows just how to show a lady a good time. But if he lets Aide infect his life away from the gaming table, will he ever eradicate the feverish dreams he's been having about what she's wearing under her lab coat? Will he even want to?
2. Ticket to... Ride
By day, Colt Branson is a train mechanic. By night, he's a full-on railroad tycoon. During his game group's weekly round of Ticket to Ride, he speeds past his competition whether he's building an empire in Europe, Asia, or the Heart of Africa. At least, he was... until Winnie Cooper caused him to hit the brakes. She's witty, pretty, and a hell of a strategist. Colt is more than ready to board the love train.
Colt Branson isn't Winnie's type. After her ex-fiancē tied her heart to the tracks and ran right over it, no man is. But she sure enjoys a game of Ticket to Ride with him. He'd be an even better opponent if he'd stop making eyes at her across the game board—could it have been more obvious that he was building a line from Portland to Nashville? At the same time, Winnie does like a man who combines brawn with brains. Can Colt claim the route to her heart?
3. Through the Heart: A Diplomacy Story
Alexis Johnson didn't know what to expect when she signed up to play an online game of Diplomacy—but it certainly wasn't Ben Wu. In their first game, she made an early (and somewhat flirtatious) deal with him, only to be heartlessly betrayed. With Austria. But she's learned from her mistakes. Now, Alexis is ruthless, conniving, and headed to the World Diplomacy Convention... where she'll be playing to win.
Ben thought that Alexis was a Diplomacy dilettante who would play a game or two and then quit. Charming as she was to negotiate with, he just couldn't take her seriously. Now he realizes that he couldn't have been more wrong. Not only has Alex turned into a cutthroat Diplomacy player, but she's the most alluring woman he's ever met, at or away from the gaming table. Can he earn her forgiveness... and negotiate a more permanent alliance?
Like many people this season, I am preparing to travel to see family for Christmas. But there is no way you're convincing me to leave my board games behind! Here is my holiday board game packing list this year:
One Player: Valley of the Kings
As you know, I like to play board games whether or not I have other people to play with. As my solo pick for holiday travel this year, I will be bringing Valley of the Kings (or one of its equally-tiny expansions, depending on my mood). The game is a deck builder with a fun twist: You don't score points based on the cards you have acquired for your deck, but for the cards that you have chosen to "entomb"—meaning that they are permanently yours for the afterlife, but you can no longer continue to benefit from their spending power and card effects. This tweak to the deck building mechanic makes for fun strategic decisions, and Valley of the Kings has a fun solo variant that will keep me playing throughout Winter Break. Plus, the box is tiny, and the game doesn't take up too much space on a table, either. It's a great choice for solo players on the go.
Two Player: Hive Pocket
Hive is a delightful two-player abstract in which you deploy different kinds of bugs in your hive with the goal of surrounding the enemy's queen bee. The game has a chess-like feel, with rules that are easy to learn but gameplay that is hard to master. For travel, Hive is even better than chess, given that its plastic hexagonal pieces are nearly indestructible and you don't need a board to play—only a flat surface. (Even an airplane tray table will do!) Plus, the pieces all fit into a drawstring bag that you can jam into any open space in your carry-on.
Multiplayer: Codenames and Splendor
In my experience, you can't go wrong introducing new gamers to Codenames or Splendor. The rules are very easy to teach, but you can wring a lot of great gameplay out of them. Codenames can expand to include almost any number of people, making it a great family game. Splendor only accommodates up to four players, but I've never introduced the game to a group of students and had it flop. I have every reason to think my family will like it! Both of these games are also great travel games, because their components are relatively few. You can easily leave the game boxes at home and pack all of the cards, chips, etc. into Ziploc bags. Although I admit I cheated a little bit this year—I already shipped a new copy of Codenames home as a gift for my word-nerd mother! I hope she loves it.
I've started a new and exciting project! I am now creating a short segment for The Dice Tower's bi-weekly show, "Throat Punch Lunch." The show focuses on Amerithrash/Ameritrash gaming, and my segment is called "SoloThrash." Shockingly, it's about playing solo games.
This is a real departure for me—it's easier for me to write than to talk to a camera. But a couple of weeks ago, Sam Healey tweeted that he was interested in bringing more reviewers onto his show. I surprised myself and replied... and now here I am, around 26:30:
Our school year has officially begun, and soon, our board game club will be meeting again! I am not ashamed to say that the best part of my job is playing games with students. I am always trying to push the kiddos beyond much-beloved classics like Uno, Jenga, and Connect Four. Learning through play is real, and I want my students to push themselves both in class and during game time.
I've ordered some games for the new school year to try out with the kids, and I cannot wait for them to arrive in the mail:
1. Paperback (2–5 Players)
As both a word game and a deck-building game, Paperback is going to be board game crack for me. (That's right, students, this is how we teachers "turn up" on the weekends!) In Paperback, your goal is to write cheesy pulp novels, and you do so by using your hand to create words, purchase additional letters, and eventually acquire victory points/publish novels.
I love that the words you make in this game help you towards a larger goal and that new cards allow you to take interesting new actions on later turns. Scrabble is fun when you're in the mood to assemble words, but you can be stuck with the same crappy letters for a long time, and if you're only playing for a high score, the game can get discouraging. (Playing Scrabble with my mom can be exceptionally brutal.) Paperback eliminates a lot of these problems because in deckbuilders, you discard your whole hand at the end of a turn and start fresh. There is always something you can do to try to improve your situation. I think Paperback could help my students get in touch with their inner word nerds.
2. Spyfall (3–8 Players)
Teenagers tend to use words like cudgels rather than like rapiers. And while there is a place for bluntness in life, I want to make my students' brains melt as they seek out just the right words for any occasion. Spyfall will help them practice while also having a ridiculous amount of fun.
Spyfall is a social deduction game in which the players are working to detect a spy. At the beginning of the game, each player receives a card that is kept secret from the other players. Most of the players receive a card that reveals their location, for example, a casino, a pirate ship, or a movie studio. The spy, however, receives a spy card. Through a delicate process of asking and answering questions, the spy tries to work out her location, while the rest of the group tries to detect the spy. Answer a question too specifically, and the spy will easily guess where you are. But answer too vaguely, and everyone will think you're the spy! Players score points by successfully accusing and revealing a spy, while the spy scores points by revealing himself and correctly naming his location. I think the element of suspicion and the challenge of coming up with appropriately subtle questions and answers will be a lot of fun for the kids.
3. Cat Tower (3-6 Players)
Cat Tower is a dexterity game that offers a fresh take on towers for anyone who has gotten tired of Jenga. In Cat Tower, each player has a hand of seven cards with cats printed on them (you can bend them to create the "legs" and stack the cats). The goal is to get rid of all of your cards first, but beware—just stacking them won't be enough. Each player also has to roll a die which causes special game effects. You may have to add "fat cats" to the tower, put cats on upside-down, or place extra cats during your turn. If you mess up and knock over part of the tower, you have to take cat cards back into your hand.
Cat Tower is cute and has simple rules, but it can be challenging to stack the cats! It is also a more interesting game than Jenga, because it ends when a player runs out of cat cards—not when the tower falls. This gives everyone a chance to keep the fun going, and to get in enough practice to actually improve their gameplay. It's also great for players of all ages, because it's simple enough for kids to play but entertaining enough for a group of adults. I think it'll work well with teenagers who want something light.
This year, I'm going to have a very exciting summer: I'm spending six weeks in Rome! I'll primarily be hanging out with other Latin teachers and studying the history and archaeology of the eternal city. But if you know me, you know I cannot possibly go six weeks without wanting to play a board game. You will also know, however, that I am an obsessively light packer. The only reason I'm checking a bag on this trip is so that I can transport copious amounts of sunscreen.
How will I manage to game while on the road? Fortunately, Board Game Geek has my back with this thread about game stores in Rome.
Additionally, I am planning to pack one or two small games, plus an iPad loaded with board game apps.
I'm not entirely certain which games will make the cut, but I think that I will bring The Game because it is a fun solitaire that can convert to a co-op. I'm also considering bringing one of the games set in the Oniverse, because they offer lots of play without taking up a lot of room in a bag. I already keep copies of Hive and Love Letter in my backpack, so I will just leave them there. Plus, if I am an extra-efficient packer, I can bring Ivanhoe and hope that my roommates are interested in playing. Ivanhoe is a fantastic gateway game for my high school students, and fellow teachers tend to like it, too. Maybe it'll work its magic again and help me make some new friends in my summer class!
My other strategy is to cram a bunch of board game apps onto my iPad. I have app versions of Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Catan, Splendor, and Ascension... and hey, maybe I "need" a few more as "preparation" for my journey.
If you have any suggestions for games that I should bring/download, I want to hear them. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments!