Best Family Games: Holiday Shopping Guide

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As we enter the advertising onslaught that we call the “holiday season”, I’d like to both shamelessly use this time to recommend some cool games and remind everyone that board games are actually a nice, healthy way to spend time away from the skull-crushing marketing frenzy of the month of December. There are, surprisingly, holidays hidden in there, and those tend to coincide with more time spent with family and friends. Fantastic! But maybe they’re not total nerds like you, and you’re in that classic predicament of wanting to share some awesome board games without scaring them away with 20 minute rules explanations.

What an amazing and fortuitous coincidence, then, because The Thoughtful Gamer is here to help! Longtime readers will know that we tend towards heavier fare, but that only means our recommendations for family games will be even better, because we’re so picky. Only the very best will get past our critical glares. What are the best we’ve played? I’m glad you asked!

Mysterium

I think I appreciate Mysterium more and more every time I play it. Give yourself some time to set up the mostly frivolous cardboard standees, dim the lights, and set the mood. Mysterium is all about trying to work together with the most infuriating communication restriction imaginable: surreal art. One player plays the “ghost” who passes off these beautiful cards to their comrades in order to lead them (Clue-style) to a murderer, location, and weapon. Otherwise the ghost cannot communicate in any other way.

Playing as the ghost is pure agony, as you try to keep a straight face while everyone completely misreads your clues. Trying to interpret the vague but meaningful-looking art is a collaborative exercise in theory, but just as often you’ll be at odds with everyone over what it could possibly mean. This frustration and tension is released, bit by bit, as you begin to guess correctly and inch towards victory. It’s easy to teach (though the rulebook is atrocious so figure it out ahead of time), utterly beautiful, and compellingly unique.

The Resistance

Want to scream in frustration with your family, but in a team vs. team competitive environment? This is the game for you. In board game circles it’s gotten a bit passe lately, but only because early adopters have played it to death. Truth is it’s still a brilliant design and a wonderful game.

In The Resistance everyone is split, secretly, into two teams. The resistance members are the good guys, trying to spot the spies in their midst. Those spies are trying to keep themselves hidden while infiltrating and sabotaging missions. The game is played over five deceivingly simple rounds. Select and vote for a team to go on the next mission. The chosen team secretly submit “success” or “failure” cards to that mission. If there’s a single failure card in the lot, it fails and the spies get a point. Otherwise the resistance does. It’s that simple. But it’s not. You start with essentially no information, and slowly, subtly, through observing behavior and voting patterns, knowledge is acquired. Accusations will start to fly. Debates will ensue. It’s beautiful.

Some will become frustrated with the amount of lying and deception here. Others won’t appreciate the very subtle way the mechanisms provide information to the players, preferring a more purely deductive experience. But for the groups this does work with, it’ll fly brilliantly. I’ve played easily over 100 games.

Codenames

Tension and frustration seems to be a theme here so far. “That doesn’t seem particularly apt for the holiday season” I can hear you thinking. Think about this, imaginary reader! Tension and release is the framework of humor. Ha!

Anyways, Codenames is about staring at a grid of words and trying to find some sense of meaning in the madness. No, wait. Come back! It’s fun. It’s like that old-timey game show Password. There is a grid of words, yes, but within that grid are possibilities! Like with Mysterium, the person who knows what’s going on will be giving clues to their teammates. The clues have to be in the form of a single word and a number. The word should link a number of words in the grid that belong to their team. The number is the number of words they’re trying to get their teammates to guess. So you might say “animal 3” to clue them into guessing aardvark, beaver, and snail. Usually it’s not that simple, because only about a third of the words are for your team. The rest will give points to the other team, or simply be wrong. One of the words is the assassin. If one of your teammates guesses the assassin word you immediately lose because you are bad at Codenames.

There is a lot of staring at a grid of words, but there are also fantastic moments of suspense and brilliance! Games last about 10-15 minutes and everyone’s going to want to take a turn at being the code-giver. I have never seen this game fail to be a hit with anyone I’ve showed it too. It lets people be clever and feel clever. There’s cheering and camaraderie and if someone gets bored or has to check on the roast, you can pretty much drop in and out as you please. There’s also, functionally, no limit to how many people can play.

Forbidden Desert

All that sand…

Here’s a proper straight-up co-op experience about trying not to die in a desert. Family fun! For reals, though, there’s a small plastic airship that you need to repair so you can fly it around upon victory. What an incentive!

I posted my full review just the other day, so I won’t repeat myself. Working together to solve problems is always a good time and Forbidden Desert may do that style of game the best.

Sushi Go Party!

If Forbidden Desert wasn’t enough, Gamewright has published a second amazing family game with Sushi Go! Get the party edition because it’s still ridiculously inexpensive, works with more people, and provides a ton of replayability.

Sushi Go is a very simple drafting game, where everyone picks from a hand of cards, passes the remaining cards to their neighbor, and then does it again. Simple as can be. The cards all have charming-but-creepy cartoony sushi on them with faces. Mostly you’re going to be trying to get different sets to maximize points. There are cards that gain or lose value based on what everyone else does, so you’re not just paying attention to yourself. Collecting sets and outwitting others is fun, and Sushi Go packs in a lot of that into a short period of time. It has an addictive quality, which is fine because you can mix up which cards you’re playing with to create an entirely new experience and go at it again!

Ticket To Ride: Europe

My preferred version of the modern classic. Ticket To Ride is such an elegant system of ramped-up push your luck mechanisms triggered not by the game itself, but by your competitors. On your turn you either draw cards or turn in sets to play trains on the board. You can try to save up for those point-lucrative large connections, but every turn you spend drawing cards is a turn not spent shoring up the key connections in the routes you’re trying to make across the map. But if you do start locking in the most important parts of your route your competitors will start to figure out where you’re trying to go.

Beyond a game of set collection, it’s a game of bluffing, backstabbing, and building. Europe adds a couple mechanisms that can help you get out of a tight spot, so it’s a bit more friendly than the US version with a more interesting map.

Carcassonne

Another game that has established itself as a classic in the modern board gaming renaissance, Carcassonne has the visual spectacle of creating the game “board” as you play. On your turn you simply pick a random tile and figure out where to place it. The tiles must connect logically (roads to roads, fields to fields, etc), but the number of options gradually grows as the play area expands.

Once you place a tile you have to decide if you want to put one of your precious meeples on it, claiming a point-generating aspect of it (like a road) for yourself. This can be difficult because you only have a few meeples, and you can’t retrieve them until you complete whatever you’re building (by, for instance, capping a road into a city). It’s deliciously simple but provides so much depth. At first you’re just going to be trying to find good locations for your tiles. Then you’ll start to worry about meeple management. After you become addicted and play a few dozen games you might have the tiles more or less memorized and turn into a weird family pariah who is unnaturally good at Carcassonne. Fun holiday times!

Seikatsu

Here’s a game that both appears to be relaxing and actually is. Seikatsu was a pleasant surprise for me this year, and I keep coming back to it again and again. Like with Carcassonne, you’re going to be picking a tile and laying it down on a board to score points. Seikatsu is even simpler, though, and more beautiful.

Each tile shows one of four different birds and one of four different flowers on it. You get points for matching adjacent birds when you place the tile, and at the end of the game you get points for lining up rows of matching flowers. The kicker is that you score your flowers only from your perspective in the hexagonally-shaped play area. Unfortunately this means that three is the maximum number of players in a game of Seikatsu. On the plus side, that gimmick is a wonderful little twist of the brain that makes game decisions all the more interesting. Did I mention that this game is absolutely beautiful?

Downforce

Another game I only reviewed recently, and another gem. You bid for ownership of F1 racing cars and then race them around the track, trying to block people through tight corners and make them waste cards pushing your car ahead instead of their own. End up with a stinker? Don’t worry, you can bet on which car will win and secretly help it to victory. I bought this on the spot when I first played it at PAX Unplugged. It’s great.

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective

Are your families and friends on the more bookish side of things? Do you think they’ll like the idea of gathering around for a couple of hours, notebooks in hand, and solving a Sherlock Holmes mystery? Well, that’s exactly what Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is. You get a map of London with dozens and dozens of locations, a comprehensive address book, a newspaper, and a mystery to solve with what appears to be little relevant information.

It’s a freeform exercise of deduction, frustration, discussion, and shots in the dark. You simply decide to go to a location, flip to that spot in the mystery booklet, and see what happens. As you start to interview people and snoop around locations, you’ll get clues. Or are they? Nothing about this game holds your hand and that’s the beauty of it. This is an intelligent mystery book in game form. It wants to challenge you and drive you to dead ends and, most importantly, make you feel brilliant when you do find a good lead. You stop playing whenever you feel like you’ve figured it out. Then you flip to the back and find out that everything you thought was wrong. Then Sherlock mocks you. Then you hate him. Then you open up the next mystery (10 in all), determined to do better.

Bunny Bunny Moose Moose

What a dumb game. It’s not even particularly good. It has a silly name and silly artwork and the rules are weirdly more complicated than what you’d think they should be. But it’s a game about posing as a moose or a rabbit while someone reads Germanic poetry like you’re part of some avant garde stop-motion dance ritual.

It’s so, so dumb. But you will laugh so, so much. Worth it.

 

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