The board-game store at my local mall is ephemeral; it suddenly appears—as if by magic—the day after Thanksgiving, and remains open until New Year’s Day, whereupon it vanishes and is instantly replaced by the next in the series of rotating, holiday-themed boutiques that occupy that space.
The store’s owners obviously recognize that the holidays were designed for game playing, as families and friends gather together to re-forge ties and wait out inclement weather. But it’s not until you browse the store’s inventory that you realize why they pack up and hit the bricks so quickly after the season’s festivities have concluded. Most of their titles are designed to be gifts—games to be bought and hastily pawned off onto someone else, as the average patron would never dream of playing them himself. Fun fact: No one in the history of the Republic has ever purchased the Family Guy Chess Set for himself, (though countless people have brought the copy they received for Christmas back to the mall on January 4th in the hope of a refund, only to find a Bric-A-Black: The Martin Luther King Jr. Day Superstore at the address printed on the receipt).
No, these are not good gift games, and it needn’t be this way. Every year scores of fantastic new board games are released, even if they are not showcased as prominently at your local mall.
To rectify this error, I assemble an annual Good Gift Games (G3) Guide, the goal of which is to tout those games that meet these 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
So this year just say no to the Limited Edition Lanthanides-themed Monopoly set (“Hooray, I landed on Gadolinium!”), and pick up something that you, or your lucky recipient, will truly appreciate.
Avalon Hill, 3 to 5 players, 75 minutes, $35
Based on the title, you might think the goal in Vegas Showdown is to make money off gambling. But in fact this game is about the real purpose of Vegas: making money off gamblers. Players own casinos and vie for slot machines, restaurants, and theaters, each trying to maximize profits by making their establishments the most attractive to customers. Intrigued? You can see a slick online demo of the game here. But a word of warning: Despite having only been released a year ago, and recently being named GAMES Magazine’s “Game of the Year,” Vegas Showdown is inexplicably out of print. Though there are still copies available through many online retailers, if you want to purchase a copy, I’d advise you do so ASAP. (more info)
Wits & Wagers
North Star Games LLC, 3 to 20 players, 20 minutes, $24
I hate trivia games, as I can never master the winning strategy of being the smartest guy in the room. And let’s face it: Trivial Pursuit, despite its reputation, is not a stellar family game, as no one wants to get shown up by a know-it-all cousin. But Wits & Wagers takes the classic trivia game and turns it on its head by adding a number of clever twists to the formula. Each question has a specific, numeric answer (e.g., “In dollars, what was Julia Roberts’s salary for her role in the hit movie Pretty Woman?). After players have all submitted their written guesses, each reply is assigned a “payout” based on where it falls on the distribution: guesses in the middle of the pack give you even money, while outliers can pay out as much as 4 to 1. Players then bet on which answer they think is correct. I usually lump trivia games in with Lars Von Trier films in terms of “fun,” but this one is a genuine blast. (more info)
Thurn & Taxis
Rio Grande Games, 2 to 4 players, 60 minutes, $27
And speaking of ampersands… In 2004 my top pick was a train game called Ticket to Ride, one of the finest G3s ever designed. Thurn & Taxis is frequently (and often favorably) compared to Ticket to Ride, and, like its predecessor, won the coveted Spiel Des Jahres Award, which is to board games what a “Best Picture” Oscar is to film. Players seek to establish mail routes across Germany, much as the historical family of Thurn and Taxis did in the 15th century. Thurn & Taxis is a bit more strategic than Ticket to Ride, though its theme is a little less appealing. So while there may be no need to own both games, you should certainly snag one or the other. (more info)
Real Deal Games, 2 to 6 players, 45 minutes, $12
As George Carlin once observed, “If you nail two things together that have never been nailed together before, some schmuck will buy it from you.” Accordingly, entrepreneurs have tried combining everything from chocolate and peanut butter to O.J. Simpson and horribly offensive book ideas in an effort to create the next hot thing. Board-game designers are no different, and alas, their hybrids are about as frequently successful (i.e., almost never). So it’s always a treat to see someone pull it off. Case in point: Parlay somehow manages to splice poker and Scrabble. The game is played with a standard deck of cards, except each card also bears a letter and a point value; players receive a number of cards, and attempt to assemble both a high-scoring word and a decent poker hand. The game makers have even managed to throw in a “hold or fold” element, giving the game that tense feeling of regular poker. Games that try to appeal to two different markets are nearly always disliked by both; Parlay, on the other hand, is likely to be well received by either the poker player or the Boggler on your list. (more info)
Rio Grande Games, 2 to 4 players, 45 minutes, $32
Another year, another G3 from designer Leo Colovini. Colovini has a knack for creating games that are intuitive, engaging, brief, and addictive. His newest offering, Masons, is no exception. Players build walls on a map of the countryside, scoring points for enclosing areas, building palaces, and establishing towns. As with all Colovini games, Masons is a masterful balance of luck and skill, offering a light strategic challenge without becoming too competitive. And the game bears another of the Colovini hallmarks: as soon as you finish one game, you’ll be eager to play it again. (more info)
GiftTRAP Enterprises, 3 to 8 players, 60 minutes, $30
A number of cards are revealed, each showing a present of some sort: a diamond ring, a new lawn, a Stratocaster electric guitar, etc. Players secretly indicate which of the available gifts they would give to each of their opponents; they also rank the presents in order of desirability. Lastly, each player “opens” the presents he received from the others, scoring points for presents he wanted, but deducting them for duds; players giving well-received gifts also score points for thoughtfulness. That’s GiftTRAP in a nutshell. I was prepared to dismiss this game as little more than a celebration of materialism, but unexpectedly found myself loving it: It’s well-designed, hilarious, and a terrific conversation stimulant. (I discovered that a good friend of mine is afraid of flying when I gave her “Flying Lessons,” a gift to which she had assigned a preference of “No Way!”) Plus, if you don’t know what to get someone for the holidays, it’s a great way to find out. (more info)
Hey! That’s My Fish!
Mayfair Games, 2 to 4 players, 20 minutes, $20
Occasionally I’ll play a new game so elegant in design that I’ll come away amazed that it hadn’t been thought of before. Hey! That’s My Fish! is the most recent example. Sixty small hexagons (each showing one, two, or three fish) are assembled into an ice floe. Players then place their penguins onto the board, and play begins. On a turn, a player moves one of his penguins and then claims the hex the penguin just vacated, scoring points for the fish shown thereon. The ice floe slowly melts as more and more hexes are taken. Eventually there will be no more legal moves, and the person with the most fish wins. It’s extremely simple and remarkably strategic. It’s also perfect for the Al Gore on your list, as I bet it would go great with the global warming PowerPoint he just happened to bring with him. (more info)
Rum & Pirates
Rio Grande Games, 2 to 5 players, 60 minutes, $32
While you may no longer spend your nights staggering around town, drinking rum, and starting brawls (ah, college), you can still relive those glory days with Rum & Pirates. Each round has two parts. First, you send your brigands out to loot the city, snatching up rewards, including treasures and new recruits. Afterwards, those corsairs who remained on the boat skirmish to see who gets the top bunk, and who gets stuck on the bedroll. Man, that’s living. Rum & Pirates is a great family game, easy enough for kids, engaging enough for adults. Plus: pirates! (more info)
Khet: The Laser Game
Innovention Toys, 2 players, 20 minutes, $42
The problem with gimmick games is that rarely is there anything beyond the central whatever to hold your attention when the novelty wears off. In fact, the gimmick usually is nothing but smoke and mirrors, to disguise the fact there’s no real game in the box. So it would seem to be literally true with Khet: the Laser Game, in which a number of the pieces bear angled mirrors. But, surprisingly, they come as part of a well-designed two-player abstract. A player first moves or rotates one of his men, then fires a laser into the field of play, which bounces around until it either hits a wall or illuminates a piece, thereby removing it from the game. And I’m not speaking metaphorically, here: the game actually has a built-in laser, which a player can fire by pressing a button. This is the sort of thing the word “cool” was coined to describe. (more info)
Blue Moon City
Fantasy Flight Games, 2 to 4 players, 60 minutes, $32
If you have a friend who’s into fantasy but rarely plays board games, pick him up a copy of Blue Moon City—the theme will sucker him in. If you have a friend who’s not into fantasy but likes board games, buy him a copy of Blue Moon City and tell him to ignore the fairies ‘n’ crap—they’re just window dressing for a solid and entertaining title. Players strive to rebuild a city shattered by war, calling upon the elemental dragons for aid and collecting holy crystals to—jeez, this sounds so complicated and overwrought I can’t even bear to go on. Just trust me: At its core, Blue Moon City is a clever and quick family game, and geared toward more than guys who can recite passages from The Dungeonmaster’s Guide from memory. (more info)
You may not find these board games at Ye Olde Temporal Mall Game Shoppe, but check your Yellow pages: There are likely to be a few specialty game stores in your area that might have them in stock. If not, there’s no shortage of online retailers that can have them on your doorstep in time for the yuletide: Funagain Games, Boulder Games, Boards & Bits, Gamefest, and Amazon.com, to name a few.
Have fun, and happy holidays!