Growing up, I never had difficulty selecting Christmas presents for my sister. I would simply pick out something I wanted, give it to her as a gift, and reclaim it shortly thereafter. Oh, you should have seen the look of what I can only assume was elation when she opened the Land of the Jawas Action Playset in 1979, and the Van Halen’s Diver Down LP in 1982.
It’s harder to pull this stunt as an adult, alas, as my wife tumbled to all my crafty stratagems about a decade ago. I don’t think she was fooled last year when I gave her a Nintendo Wii and a subscription to Details.
Of course, the worst gift recipients are friends, as they are wont to whisk the presents you give them away to their own homes, the ingrates. And then what do you have to show for your gift giving? An ephemeral warm feeling of beneficence, I guess. But that’s no Land of the Jawas Action Playset, let me tell you.
That’s why I give my acquaintances board games. Doing so strengthens the sacred bonds of friendships between us—and makes it likely that they will invite me over to play the very gift I gave them. Yes! In your face, altruism!
Of course, this only works if they actually like the game they receive. That’s why, every year, I keep an eye out for Good Gift Games (G3s), titles that even those who don’t typically play games will love playing.
- 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
And so, without further ado, here are the games that those nearest and dearest to my heart can expect to receive from me this year. Tuesday and Saturday evenings work best for me.
Rio Grande Games, 2 to 5 players, 45 minutes, $45
Congratulations on your new zoo! Now all you need to do is rustle up some animals. Not to fear: Trucks bearing kangaroos, flamingos, gorillas, and five other types of fauna are yours for the taking. In fact, your problem isn’t lack of animals, but too many of them; if you can’t fit all the critters into your enclosures, the remainders are relegated to the barn, and will count as negative points at the end of the game. Complicating all this are your opponents, who will be more than happy to lob elephants your way—doubly so if you have nowhere to put them. Zooloretto recently won the Spiel Des Jahres (Game of the Year award), and it is routinely cited as the family game to get for 2007. Plus, it’s got baby panda bears. I mean, come on: baby pandas. That should seal the deal right there. (more info)
Face 2 Face Games, 2 to 4 players, 30 minutes, $30
Roll four dice and group them into scoring combinations. Every time you succeed, you advance your markers on the board and are given the opportunity to roll again. You can call it quits at any time and “bank” your progress, but a roll that produces no combinations voids everything you earned during the turn. That’s Can’t Stop, a game that has long been considered amongst the best of the “push-your-luck” breed. And yet, despite selling well upon its release in 1980, Can’t Stop was inexplicably out of print in the U.S. for some 20 years. Three cheers for Face 2 Face Games, which has finally reprinted this classic. Snap up a copy before it disappears for another generation. (more info)
Asmodee Editions, 2 players, 30 minutes, $37
There’s no shortage of games that replicate the formula of Monopoly (make money!) and Risk (wage war!). But few have gone the route of Clue, challenging players to unmask a killer via deductive reasoning. Thankfully, Mr. Jack is picking up the slack. Eight characters—ranging from Sherlock Holmes to Sir William Gull—wander the streets of Whitecastle; one of them is secretly Jack the Ripper. The Jack player knows the identity of the fiend, and works to keep it concealed; the detective strives to apprehend the criminal by game’s end. Simple, brief, and ingenious, it’s a perfect pastime for anyone who enjoys a good mystery. (more info)
Mindware, 2 to 4 players, 45 minutes, $25
Cognizant that some folks refuse to play anything that doesn’t resemble Scrabble, I always try and include a word game on this annual list. Sadly, 2007 wasn’t a great year for that particular genre. Fortunately, the basic idea of Qwirkle will be familiar to your favorite Scrabbaholic, even if it doesn’t involve letters or words. Place tiles on the table to create rows and columns of matching shapes or matching colors; the more previously placed tiles you incorporate into your play, the more points you score. A fun and beautiful game, well-suited for families and couples. (more info)
Rio Grande Games, 2 to 4 players, 90 minutes, $50
Thebes is a smidge weightier than the other games on this list, but worth the extra effort to learn. Players divide their time between Europe, where they conduct research and listen for rumors of fabled riches, and the Mediterranean, where they excavate archeological sites in search of treasure. In a novel twist, time is literally money in Thebes: Each player is given 52 weeks at the start of a year-long round, and must decide how to best spend them amongst study, travel, digging up artifacts, and putting on exhibits. Ironic, that a game stressing the importance of doing your homework could be such a blast. Goes great with a fedora and the Raiders of the Lost Ark soundtrack. (more info)
Heroscape Marvel: The Conflict Begins
Hasbro, 2 or more players, 45 minutes, $35
Sure, strategy is fun, but sometimes what you want in a game is muscle-bound superheroes beating the crap out of one another. Enter Heroscape Marvel: The Conflict Begins. Pit heroes against their arch-enemies, settle the “who would win in a fight, Spider-Man or Captain America” debate once and for all, or just let everyone brawl in a battle royale—the system accommodates pretty much any scenario you can envision, as long as it involves punching. Plus, you can combine this set with the original Heroscape game and have the Hulk fight robots and dragons. OMG, nerdgasm! (more info)
Bull in a China Shop
Playroom Entertainment, 3 to 5 players, 30 minutes, $10
Buy china and put it in your shop. But the only way to buy china is with money. And only way to make money is by letting bulls loose in your shop—where they inevitably break the china. Bull in a China Shop features a bizarre economic model, I admit—though perhaps no more than the subprime mortgage industry. Still, with crafty maneuvering and a bit of luck you can still come out ahead. Named 2007’s “Best Family Card Game” by GAMES magazine. (more info)
Cwali, 2 to 4 players, 45 minutes, $42
For a while there in the early ‘90s, I was hopelessly addicted to a series of computer games called The Incredible Machine, where you used contraptions (ramps, conveyor belts, cannons, and more) to get a ball from one side of the screen to the other. Thoughts of this game were summoned when I first played Factory Fun, which evokes the same excitement and satisfaction of tackling and solving mechanical puzzles. In this case you are trying to produce a product called Black from four raw materials: Yellow, Blue, Red, and Brown. You do this by placing an assortment of machines into your factory, each of which has some specialized function. Some people view these types of games as more work than fun, but I find them as engrossing as Sudoku. (more info)
Wings of War
Fantasy Flight Games, 2-4 players, 20 minutes, $30
OK, totally cheating on this one. Released in 2004, the original edition of Wings of War (Famous Aces) featured WWI biplanes printed onto cards, which instantly transformed any playing surface into a battlefield. But if the game is three years old, how can I justify weaseling it onto the 2007 list? I’m glad you asked. Simple, innovative, and loads of fun, Wings of War spawned a number of sequels and supplements—and the best one yet (Miniatures!) was released this fall. Now your dogfights can take place above your kitchen table rather than on it, as the 1/144-scale model planes duke it for aerial supremacy. (more info: Famous Aces, Miniatures)
Rio Grande Games, 2 to 4 players, 30 minutes, $50
You know: for kids! Players race their mice around a castle, seeking the cheese hidden therein. But Chateau Roquefort is the world’s largest mousetrap; players can shift the floors, dropping their opponent’s unsuspecting rodents into the castle’s dungeon to (I like to imagine) meet a ghastly end. Yay! Having once lived in a house infested with mice, I’m a big proponent of games that teach children to snuff out the little bastards. But don’t buy it for the edutainment value alone, buy it because it’s super cute and loads of fun. (more info)
So where do you find these wonderful toys? Well, in the last year or so, specialty game stores here in Seattle have been cropping up like fungus after a rain. Maybe that’s true of your hometown as well: Plug its name into Google Maps, search for “games,” and see what you get.
If the brick-and-mortar route fails you, there’s always the online option. Check out Funagain Games, Boulder Games, Boards & Bits, Gamefest, and Amazon, to name a few.
Have fun, and happy holidays!