The Thoughtful Gamer’s 2019 Holiday Gift Guide

It’s four days into December and I’ve still got Thanksgiving leftovers in the fridge. I’m actually kind of sick of Amber’s mashed potatoes right now, but don’t tell her that. It’s the holiday season, and if you haven’t spent too much money this past weekend, you’re going to see all kinds of articles tempting you to spend more. This is one of those articles. Kind of.

See, I like playing new releases, but it’s exhausting even thinking about trying to keep up with them all. One of the foundational principles of The Thoughtful Gamer is that I would not run around trying to capture every new release. That’s a fool’s errand, or the task of an outlet with many people in its employ. Rather, I want to try to find the games worth playing and savoring, regardless of age.

To that end, here’s a holiday gift guide with five games at least 20(ish) years old. All five games are splendid, and if you already own one or two, even better! Maybe this will inspire you to dust it off and play a classic.

Lost Cities Card Game

From BGG user dodecalouise

There’s a new version of this out, I think, and also the board game. Keltis is basically the same thing from what I understand, and there’s probably different versions of that too. Whatever. I can vouch for the original card game, and it’s a fantastic little two player skirmish. You’re trying to accumulate points by placing as many points as possible in whichever suits you “explore” with. 

The caveat: you can only play a card with a higher value than the one before, so you’re trying to shuffle the cards in your hand around so that you can play a bunch of them in a row. Another caveat: when you discard a card it goes to the center where either player can draw it, so you don’t want to give your opponent cards they want, but you also don’t want to be going for the same suits as them else you dilute the potential points you can earn.

A third, final caveat: whenever you begin to lay down cards of a suit, you lose 20 points. Like, immediately. Now you’ve got to get those points back or you’re really in the lurch. Add in some cards that double or triple your total score (negative or positive) and you’ve got yourself a push-your-luck, hand management soup to nourish your winter-cold stomach. Metaphorically. Please don’t eat Lost Cities.

El Grande

What an elegant slice of area majority goodness! El Grande is as vicious as it is unassuming, as you try to spread your dudes out over Spain to claim delicious points (I think I’m hungry). But each round everyone gets a card, and those cards are going to cause trouble. How to acquire them? A pitch-perfect bidding system where once you spend a bidding card it’s gone forever. The number of meeples you get is also inversely proportional to the strength of your bid, because tricky decisions are great!

There’s also a cardboard tower you can drop meeples into and people always put too many in there because who doesn’t want to put their meeples in a surprise chaos tower of fun? Sure there are better looking games, but El Grande is a stone-cold classic for a reason. 

Carcassonne

From BGG user Christo

Recently someone asked what game you’d recommend to a person if you knew nothing about them, and my answer was immediate: Carcassonne. Your decision space is stripped down to the bare essentials: you have a tile and where do you want to put it? That simplicity is amazing in an era of giant-boxed icon-fests (and I enjoy many of them) but Carcassonne somehow manages to keep giving and giving. 

Placing your single tile could be a careful scoring maneuver to bank points, a luck-pushing city expansion, or an act of desperation. It can be a casual, “ehhh, that looks good” or the result of meticulous tile-counting and calculation. But Carcassonne is always there, ready to give.

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective

From BGG user MaroonedMorlock

Did you know SHCD won the Speil des Jahres? This quirky, mostly text-based, puzzly-narrative thing won the most prestigious prize in our hobby back in ‘85. Years later it’s gotten a bit of a facelift, a subtitle I don’t remember, and a sequel, now that people are paying attention to it again. Equally good amongst a large group of friends as it is by your lonesome, this game has you racing against Sherlock Holmes to solve a series of mysteries. Except you will never beat Holmes because he’s an arrogant snob who only shows up to mock you.

The real treasure is in exploring the different locales of London, reading the daily paper, and pouring through the text of every interaction to try to link all of this disparate information into a coherent story. I am awful at this game but I distinctly remember many moments of genuine surprise and delight. I think if you buy the new edition the annoying typos might be fixed, too.

Stephenson’s Rocket

Like all good things, this article begins and ends with the Good Doctor Reiner Knizia. Stephenson’s Rocket manages to evoke the great abstracts while also being sneaky thematic. Cities like industry and towns want to move people from place to place. The more you invest in a company the more shares you get, which gives you more influence over the decisions that company makes. It all fits, yet there isn’t a spare part on this sleek gaming locomotive.

I wonder, does Reiner come up with such elegance on the spot, or is he the greatest editor of gaming ideas of all time? Regardless, Stephenson’s Rocket is like Ticket to Ride stretched to a taut wire, with even more interaction, more yomi, and tighter decisions.

I love seeing the new and exciting games released every year, and I look forward to seeing what new ideas people come up with. But in our haste to keep up with the new, we lose sight of the gems of the past. This holiday season, why not try an old game?

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