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The 2004 Good Gift Games Guide

The last time you played a board game you got the Adam’s apple caught in the funny-bone slot and then you couldn’t pass GO or collect $200. These days, however, board games are a lot more enticing and fun.

Once upon a time, when you were shorter and less concerned about carbs, winter meant board games. With several weeks off from school and increasingly inhospitable weather outside, whiling away the hours over Battleship or Payday seemed like a pretty good use of time. Plus, you inevitably got stuck having to hang out with your stupid cousins at holiday get-togethers, and although you couldn’t bludgeon them to death with a candlestick, you could at least accuse them of having done so to Professor Plum in the conservatory.

You’ve grown up since then, and maybe you now dismiss board games as “kids’ stuff.” But I’ll tell you a secret: Board games have grown up, too. In the last 15 years a new breed of game has hit the market, those designed specifically for adults. And more people are turning to board games as one of the best (and cheapest) forms of at-home entertainment.

I write game reviews for a number of publications, and friends often ask me for recommendations around the holidays. So for the past five years I have written an annual Good Gift Games (G3) Guide, showcasing titles that have been released in the last year and serve as a good introduction to the hobby. In general, this means games that meet three broad criteria:

1. Easy to learn, with rules that can be explained in less than five minutes

2. Entertaining, so committed to the fun factor that even the guy who comes in dead last has a great time playing

3. Quick, lacking downtime and requiring no more than an hour to complete.

Here, then, are my 2004 Good Gift Games.
 

Ticket to Ride

Days of Wonder, two to five players, 45 minutes, $40

Ticket to Ride has been racking up kudos ever since its release, even garnering the prestigious “German Game of the Year” award. So what do you care what a bunch of Germans think about board games? Well, Germany is the center of the board-game universe for sociological reasons I don’t even pretend to grok, so being named “German Game of the Year” is like being named “Japanese Inscrutable Hyperkinetic Animated Movie of the Year” or “Canadian… uhhm… Maple Syrup of the Year” or whatever. Anyway. The game board shows a map of the U.S. with cities connected by a web of train routes. Players claim routes by collecting and playing sets of train cards. But a route claimed by one player is unavailable for use by the others, forcing opponents to seek out detours. Ticket to Ride is tense and exciting, but the indirect nature of the competition is perfect for families and friends.

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Boomtown

Face 2 Face Games, two to five players, 30 minutes, $23

Purchase gold mines and hope to hit the mother lode, while siphoning off the funds of others using saloons and card sharks. And if an opponent’s mine is too productive… well, there’s always dynamite. With a typical game clocking in at half an hour, Boomtown is a great after-dinner game to be played over beers. And many of the cards feature illustrations of buxom, scantily clad girls, so if you’re into that kind of thing it’s a win-win deal.

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Carcassonne: The City

Rio Grande Games, two to four players, 60 minutes, $50

The original Carcassonne became so popular that it has spawned expansions, two-player versions, and even religious-themed editions. Carcassonne: The City is the most recent incarnation, with streamlined rules and handsome wooden pieces. Players use landscape tiles to construct a city, fill it with roads and markets, and surround it with walls and towers. It’s an outstanding game—and if $50 strikes you as a bit steep, you can pick up the original Carcassonne for about half that price.

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Alhambra

Uberplay, two to six players, 60 minutes, $35

Hire builders from around Arabia to construct a palace of unparalleled splendor. But as anyone who has tried to keep up with the Joneses knows, it’s not enough to just have manors, gardens, and pavilions—you need to have more manors, gardens, and pavilions than your neighbor. Alhambra received last year’s “German Game of the Year” award (a big deal, as I mentioned above), but was omitted from the 2003 G3 Guide because it wasn’t yet available in the U.S. Now that Uberplay offers an English version, it earns a high spot on this year’s list proper.

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Memoir ‘44

Days of Wonder, two players, 45 minutes, $50

Old-school war games have a reputation for being either too abstract (think Risk), or so dedicated to accuracy that they require a legion of cardboard counters and a fortnight to complete. Memoir ‘44 strikes a happy medium by masterfully blending luck and strategy into a game that’s both unpredictable and rewarding of skillful play. Players can reenact over a dozen WWII scenarios, from D-Day to the Liberation of Paris, with an easy-to-learn and quick-moving combat system. The game comes complete with infantry, tanks, and artillery miniatures, as well as a huge, double-sided board with countryside and beach landscapes to accommodate the various battles.

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Cranium Hoopla

Cranium, two or more players, 20 minutes, $20

Hoopla takes the best elements of the wildly popular Cranium game and turns the whole enterprise into an exercise in cooperation. Now the players are on a single team, using sketches and charades to work their way through a deck of cards before a clock runs out. The difficulty level of the game can be adjusted simply by giving yourselves more or less time, making Hoopla suitable for players of every skill level.

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Hansa

Uberplay, two to four players, 60 minutes, $35

Participants play the role of merchants, buying and selling wares as they sail the Baltic Sea. The catch is that all the players are on the same boat and take turns determining where the ship sails. Hansa is a highly tactical game, and every turn is a tiny logic problem to be solved. This makes it a bit more of a mental workout than some of the other G3s named here, but there’s great satisfaction in noodling out a particularly clever play. A perfect choice for the puzzle-lover on your list.

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BuyWord

Face 2 Face Games, one to four players, 45 minutes, $25

The tiles from Scrabble and the money element from Monopoly are combined into a title that Games magazine heralded as the best of 2004. You acquire letters by spending cash; you make money by creating words. What makes it tricky is that you can get a Q or a K on the cheap, but an E will cost you a pretty penny. Word games are a holiday staple, and this is one of the best in a (sorry!) spell.

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San Juan

Rio Grande Games, two to four players, 45 minutes, $25

If this were a list of the best games ever, a gem called Puerto Rico would be on the top of the heap. But although P.R. is considered the Lance Armstrong of modern board games, many find its complexities daunting. Now there’s San Juan, an entry-level version of Puerto Rico and a terrific little game in its own right. Every card in the game depicts a building that you can construct in the Puerto Rican capitol. But to pay for a building you must discard cards from your hand—an ingenious twist that provides players with plenty of tough decisions. San Juan accommodates up to five players, but works exceptionally well as a two-player game.

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Loco!

Fantasy Flight Games, two to four players, 10 minutes, $7

Despite my assurances that these G3s are simple, maybe you still think they sound a little complicated. Maybe what you really want is a game with just one rule. Ladies and gentleman, I give you Loco. Play a card (valued zero to five in one of five colors) onto the discard pile for that suit, then take any poker chip (of the same five colors) from the table—that’s all you do on a turn. When the game ends about 10 minutes later, each chip a player owns is worth the value of the card on the top of that color’s discard pile. Even though you can explain all the rules for Loco in a single lungful of air, it’s massively fun and unaccountably addictive.

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You’re unlikely to find these games at your local Wal-Mart, but more and more stores are catering to the burgeoning board-game hobby. Popular online outlets include Boards and Bits, Boulder Games, Funagain, Gamefest, GameSurplus, and Time Well Spent, and a quick search through your local Yellow Pages is likely to reveal a specialty store in your area.

For more information about these games and thousands more, check out Boardgame Geek. Have fun!