Below, you will find 30 games and one toy that I think will make really fantastic gifts. And between the 5 different categories, you should hopefully be able to find a game for almost anyone on your list. And if that’s not enough, most of the games I mentioned on my previous gift guides are still available, so you can check them out for even more ideas: 2012 Gift Guide, 2011 Gift Guide, 2010 Gift Guide, 2009 Gift Guide, 2008 Gift Guide.
Almost everyone likes a good party game. These games tend to focus more on simply having a good time rather than presenting a brain-hurting strategic challenge . They can often accommodate large numbers of people, are quick to learn, and encourage lots of talking, laughing, and general hilarity. Some that have caught my attention recently include:
Tapple – This is sort of a cross between a word game and hot potato, where you draw a topic card and take turns naming something that meets it. But you’ve only got 10 seconds before the timer goes off, and you have to think of a word that starts with a letter that hasn’t been used yet, which is tracked on this cool, little device thingy in the middle of the table. It’s quick, intense, and fun!
2-8 players, 20 minutes to play, Cost: $28 – Available in Target, Barnes & Noble, toy stores, and almost anywhere online
WordARound – This little word game is based on a really novel concept. Each of its 100 round cards have three words written on them, each in a different colored ring. But the catch is that the letters are written all around the card, with no indication of which is the first or last letter. So when you flip the card over, it’s a race to be the first to decipher what the word is. And then, the color of the last card determines which colored ring you’ll be figuring out on the next card. It’s really fast and simple, and it’s the kind of game that you can’t think too much, you just have to let your brain find the pattern instinctively.
2+ players, 10 minutes to play, Cost: $13 – Available in Barnes & Noble, some hobby and educational game stores, and online
2-5 players, 30 minutes to play, Cost: $35 – Available in hobby game stores and online
Ugg-Tect – You’re a caveman, and you’re trying to get your clan to build something. But since you haven’t developed language quite yet, you have to rely on primitive grunts and sounds to get your point across, which you can then drive home by bopping your teammates on the head with an inflatable club! It’s silly and fun, and anything that includes inflatable clubs has a very large possibility of being reliably hilarious.
4-8 players, 45 minutes to play, Cost: $40 – Available online and in some specialty book and educational stores.
The Resistance: Avalon – In this social deduction game, you take on the role of characters in Camelot during the reign of King Arthur. But unfortunately, some of you are traitors planted by the evil Mordred to bring down Arthur and his people. The group has to choose who will go on each of 5 quests, and based on what you see, hear, and deduce about the result, everyone has to figure out who is and isn’t loyal as the forces of good try to succeed in their goal.
5-10 players, 30 minutes to play, Cost: $20 – Available in hobby game stores and online
Recommendations from previous lists: Reverse Charades, Timeline, Time’s Up: Title Recall, Anomia, Word on the Street, Telestrations, Cloud 9, Balderdash
These games are aimed at young children, or are games that school-age children could play on their own without adult help. But the cool thing is that they still tend to actually have enough universal appeal for adults to have some real fun playing them as well!
Fastrack – If there is one overall game that I’d recommend this holiday season, Fastrack would be it. The basic idea is that you have a board divided in two by a little wall. Each player starts with 5 discs on their side, and the goal is to pull the discs back against a little rubber band thingy and shoot them through a hole in the wall over to the other side. Whoever can get all the discs on their opponent’s side wins! It’s frantic and intense and exciting and incredibly fun! So far, I’ve bought it as a gift for people as young as 7 and as old as 17, and of course, I’ve picked up one for myself too!
2 players, Ages 5+, 5 minutes to play, Cost: $20 – Available at specialty toy stores and online
Ghost Blitz/Geistesblitz – In this quick little game, five wooden items sit on the table waiting to be caught: a white ghost, a green bottle, a cute grey mouse, a blue book, and a comfortable red chair. Each card in the deck shows pictures of two objects, with one or both objects colored the wrong way. With all players playing at the same time, someone reveals a card, then players grab for the “right” object – but which object is right? It’s all about recognizing colors and shapes, and having quick enough reflexes to grab the right one!
2-8 players, Ages 5+, 20 minutes to play, Cost: $16 – Available pretty much anywhere games are sold
Boom Boom Balloon – I don’t actually know how good a game this is, but it’s certainly quite interesting. You start by blowing up a balloon into the little frame thingy. Then, you take turns rolling a die that tells you how many notches you have to push little rods into the balloon. So when the balloon bursts, that person loses. The game comes with a dozen or so balloons, but most standard-sized balloons would work with it as well. And for an idea of what play is like, check out this picture that says it all.
2-6 players, Ages 8+, 20 minutes to play, Cost: $14 – Available pretty much anywhere games are sold
Enchanted Cupcake Party Game – This is more of a Disney-princess-and-cupcakes-themed toy than anything else, but there’s also a neat little timed cooperative family game here as well. Different princesses like to have different components in their cupcake, so you have to work together to build them out of the cute, little plastic pieces that come in the game. It’s pretty fun, and like I said, your little girls will enjoy playing with the little cupcakes as much or more than actually playing the game.
2+ players, Ages 3+, 20 minutes to play, Cost: $18 – Available pretty much anywhere games are sold
The Three Little Pigs – This is a simple dice game where you try to collect the pieces you need to build houses made of straw, sticks, or bricks. But if you roll enough wolf heads on the dice, you instead get to pick up the spinner, give it a big blow, and knock down other players’ houses! It’s a cute and approachable take on the classic story, and is the first in a new line of games from IELLO.
2-5 players, Ages 7+, 20 minutes to play, Cost: $30 – Available in some hobby game stores and online
Magician’s Kitchen – In this game, players push their little magician’s assistant figure around the board trying to deliver spell components to the cauldron. But the trouble comes in that magnets underneath the board can make them trip and spill their load out on the ground. It’s a game of dexterity and memory as you try to navigate the kitchen and be the first to complete the master’s potion.
2-4 players, Ages 5+, 25 minutes to play, Cost: $30 – Available in some hobby game stores, some specialty toy stores, and online
Indoor Snowball Fight – Okay, this is a total cheat, because this isn’t actually a game at all. If you haven’t seen these before, it’s a collection of artificial snowballs that actually feel like snow when you squeeze them. And since having a snowball fight is sort of like a competition, I’m going to list it here mostly just because they’re totally cool.
2+ players, All Ages, As long as you want to play, Cost: $20-40 (depending on how many you get) – Available in specialty toy stores and online
Recommendations from previous lists: Loopin’ Louie, Spot It, Take the Cake, Heroica, Go Away Monster!, Rory’s Story Cubes, Sherlock, Animal Upon Animal, Castle Keep.
These are some games that the whole family can play together. There’s some actual strategy involved in all of these, but they’re still pretty lightweight and appropriate for school-age and older children (perhaps with some adult supervision for help setting them up or managing the game), as well as adults. And unlike a lot of mass-market “family” games, these games are actually fun for everyone as well!
Hanabi – I love cooperative games, and Hanabi has a new take on what a cooperative game can do. Players work together to lay cards down on the table in order, sort of like in solitaire. But the real twist here is that you can’t look at your own cards! Players give each other clues about what they have in their hands, but you’re limited both on what you can say and how many clues you can give before you have to start discarding cards to get more. This won the German Game of the Year award (which is a really big de
al), and it’s one of the best overall games that I’ve played all year.
2-5 players, Ages 8+, 30 minutes to play, Cost: $15 – Available in hobby game stores and online.
Mice and Mystics – The Prince and his loyal friends have been changed into mice to protect them from the evil Vanestra. But now, they have to brave the castle and face all sorts of pint-sized challenges to defeat her and restore themselves to human form. Mice and Mystics is a simple cooperative adventure game filled with amazing plastic miniatures and amazing artwork, and which can appeal to the whole family.
1-4 players, Ages 7+, 60 minutes to play, Cost: $60-75 – Available in Barnes & Noble, in hobby game stores, and online.
Indigo – This game is all about placing tiles on the board to build pathways trying to bring little gems into your goal spaces. But since you share those goal areas with other players, you have to both work with and against other people to score the most points and win. It’s very simple and easy to pick up, but still challenging to figure out how work with others while still getting the greatest benefit for yourself.
2-4 players, Ages 8+, 30 minutes to play, Cost: $35 – Available in hobby game stores and online
Forbidden Desert – Much like Forbidden Island before it, this is another fantastic family-weight cooperative game. The players have crash-landed in a desert and have to unearth the ancient city below the sand to find components to a flying machine in order to escape before the storm buries them all forever!
2-5 players, Ages 10+, 30 minutes to play, Cost: $25 – Available at Barnes & Noble, specialty toy stores, hobby game stores, and online.
The Great Heartland Hauling Co. – This is a truly excellent little game. It’s such a smart and elegant system, and I’m continually impressed with it the more I play. The core mechanic is probably the most elemental pick-and-deliver system that I’ve ever seen. You basically just spend cards to load up to 8 cubes on your truck, then you move around and spend more cards to unload them elsewhere for points. It’s so simple and quick to ”pick up” (see what I did there?), but it still seems to have a great bit of depth for how short it is. Unfortunately, it appears to be out of stock right now
2-4 players, Ages 10+, 30 minutes to play, Cost: $20 – Available at some hobby game stores and online at GameSalute.com
Salmon Run – There are a lot of “deck building” games out there these days, but this is the only one about salmon racing upstream to spawn. And while it sounds a little silly, I’ve found Salmon Run to be both one of the best deckbuilders and race games I’ve played in the last couple of years. Plus, it’s quick and relatively simple, which makes it really attractive and approachable for almost any family with older children or teens.
2-4 players, Ages 10+, 20-30 minutes to play, Cost: $40 – Available at hobby game stores and online.
Recommendations from previous lists: King of Tokyo, PitchCar, Garden Dice, Survive: Escape from Atlantis, Tsuro, Forbidden Island, Tobago, Qwirkle, Sorry Sliders, Ticket to Ride.
These games all have a low price point and small profile, are accessible to almost anyone, are quick to set up and play, and still pack a pretty hefty punch in gaming fun!
Love Letter – Love Letter is made up of 16 cards and a few wooden cubes. But even in that incredibly small package, you can find some real gameplay in this simple role-deduction game. Every player is dealt one card, and on your turn you draw another card and play one. The goal is either to eliminate everyone else, or to be holding the biggest card at the end. Rounds play in just a minute or two, and entire games last just 15 minutes or so as everyone tries to get their letters to the Princess and win her favor.
2-4 players, 15 minutes to play, Cost: $10 – Available at hobby game stores and online
;– This is an introduction to more complex ladder-style climbing games. In each hand, players attempt to gather points and go out first by getting rid of all their cards. The twist in this type of game is that tricks can be lead with either a single card or with a meld of 3 or more like-numbered cards or even a run of sequentially-numbered cards, which then other players have to beat or be forced to pass.
2-6 players, 30 minutes to play, Cost: $14 – Available at hobby game stores, Barnes & Noble, and online
Friday – This is a little strange in that it’s a solitaire-only game. In fact, it’s pretty much the best solo-play game that I’ve ever encountered. Players attempt to help Robinson Crusoe survive and escape the island by building up a deck of cards through facing increasingly-difficult challenges. It’s quick to set up, challenging, and full of tough choices for players of any skill level.
1 player, 25 minutes to play, Cost: $20 – Available at hobby game stores and online
The Walking Dead Card Game – First of all, the Walking Dead theme here is totally just window dressing, because the game itself has been around for a long time a few other forms. It’s a simple and quick little card game of trying to choose cards to add to piles that will not make them get too big, because if you add the 6th card to a pile, you have to take the cards already there and score negative points. This new zombified version does include a new way to play, though, and if you’re a fan of the show, it’s pretty to look at (well, it’s actually kinda gross since they’re zombies, but you know what I mean).
2-10 players, 20 minutes to play, Cost: $15 – Available at some hobby game stores and online
Battle Line – Battle Line is another game that’s been around for a very long time, but I haven’t mentioned it before on this list, so I thought it would be a good 2-player option to include here. Basically, you and your opponent are adding cards one-at-a-time to your side of 9 different “battles”. Up to 3 cards can be played on each side, and their strength is basically poker-like. The goal then is to win 5 of the 9 battles, or 3 in a row. It’s a fast and challenging game of hand-management and bluffing, and is fun for almost anyone that enjoys tactical card games.
2 players, 30 minutes to play, Cost: $20 – Available at some hobby game stores and online
Maximum Throwdown – If you want something completely different, this may be for you! Each player has a deck of cards, and you take turns throwing them on the table on each round. When it comes back to you, you can score and get special abilities based on the symbols visible on your cards. It’s fast-paced and simple, and gets better and better with more players.
2-6 players, 30 minutes to play, Cost: $20 – Available at some hobby game stores and online
Recommendations from previous lists: No thanks!, Biblios, Divinare
And then there’s the games that require a lot more thought. For either the experienced boardgamer in your life or just for that person who you think would appreciate the challenge of a truly strategic game, here are some of my suggestions. (And you can check out my series on Modern Boardgame Basics if you’d like more information about this type of games.)
Firefly: The Game – This section is about “strategy” games, but Firefly is more of a thematic experience than it is about hard strategy. If you’re a fan of Firefly/Serenity or even just have a moderate interest in its whole “space cowboy” concept, this is a fantastic game to immerse yourself in that whole universe. As the tagline says, the whole point of the game is to, “Find a crew, find a job, and keep flying.”
1-4 players, 120 minutes to play, Cost: $50 – Available at hobby game stores, Barnes & Noble, and online
Libertalia – This is a medium-weight game about building your pirate crew. Every player starts with an identical hand of pirate cards, and on each turn, everyone simultaneously chooses one to play. The strength of the pirate usually determines how much booty you get, but every card also has a special power that can give you all sorts of other be
nefits as well. So even though you all start from the same place, the path you try to take to victory can be drastically different. It’s simple to get into and teach, but it still has room for lots of decisions and second-guessing about what your opponents will do.
2-6 players, 45 minutes to play, Cost: $50 – Available at hobby game stores and online
Rialto – Rialto is about trying to best draft and manage a hand of cards to gain influence in the city of Venice. Each round is made up of 6 phases, with each tying to one type of card, so while playing any cards will give you some benefit, playing the most of one type will get you an extra bonus. The core system is crazy simple, but the game is deceptively deep as you learn more about how to manipulate and manage your hand of cards from turn to turn.
2-5 players, 45 minutes to play, Cost: $50 – Available at hobby game stores and online
Compounded – Science! Compounded is all about chemistry… as in, real chemistry. An array of compound cards are laid out, each requiring the realistic elements used to make them. So on each turn, players will draw element token from a bag, trade them around if they wish, and then use them to complete compounds. Doing so will score points and allow them to improve their ability to draw or place more elements, claim more compounds, and keep more elements from phase to phase. And on top of that, you also have to be wary of lab fires which can cause flammable compounds to explode! It’s thinky but fun, educational and interesting all at the same time, and I’d recommend it for almost anyone.
2-5 players, 90 minutes to play, Cost: $35 – Available directly from the publisher and at some hobby game stores
Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar – I like a really good, euro-style worker placement game, and Tzolk’in definitely fills that hole nicely. But what makes it really cool is that the central component of the board is a series of connected cogs that make up the “calendar” where you place your workers. The longer you leave them there, the better the action you’ll get, but you have to either add or remove workers on each turn, and you never want to waste time. I love the theme of this game, and while the core game mechanics are pretty simple, figuring out how to make the timing elements work best for you is both challenging and stimulating. It’s one of my favorite games of the last year or so.
2-4 players, 90 minutes to play, Cost: $60 – Available at hobby game stores and online (I’m not sure if it will eventually be available in mass-market stores as well)
1775: Rebellion – Much as I did last year, I decided to include one “war” game in this list. 1775: Rebellion is a very light and simple game about the American Revolution, where one or two players can take control of factions on each side of the conflict. Cards are used to move armies and do special things, and then custom dice tailored to each faction are used to resolve combat. It’s a fast, fluid, and interesting game that captures a lot of the theme and history of the war, and is simple enough that almost anyone can pick it up and enjoy it.
2-4 players, 75 minutes to play, Cost: $65 – Available at hobby game stores and online
Spyrium – In an alternate history, steampunk-esque England, where players construt buildings and factories to take advantage of a new and powerful element known as spyrium. The game is played by taking turns placing workers around the cards placed in the market for the round, and then players individually choose when to stop placing and begin removing their workers. Because when you remove a worker, you either have to pay money equal to the number of other workers around the card you want, or you can just take money equal to the other workers and leave the card where it is.
2-5 players, 75 minutes to play, Cost: $35 – Available at some hobby game stores and online
Recommendations from previous lists: Sentinels of the Multiverse, The Manhattan Project, Lords of Waterdeep, Eminent Domain, The Speicherstadt, Puerto Rico, Macao, Peloponnes, Pandemic, Steam, Cosmic Encounter
For each entry, I’ve tried to give you some indication where you might can find these games, but sometimes that can be affected by availability and other factors.
My favorite place to buy games is Hypermind, the local hobby game store in Burlington, NC. It’s located on South Church Street in the Rosewood Village Shopping Center right next to the Tuesday Morning. If you’re closer to the RTP area, I’ll also highly recommend Atomic Empire in Durham and The Gamer’s Armory in Cary.
To buy these games online, here are some sites that I recommend:
• Amazon – You can find almost anything on Amazon, including many of the games on this list.
• Funagain Games – Huge selection of games, especially hard to find imports
• Game Surplus – Great service and fast shipping
• Time Well Spent – Excellent family and children’s games selection
• Cool Stuff Inc. – Lots of selection at a great discount
I wish you all great luck in your holiday shopping endeavors, and I hope that games are able to help you enjoy the season and the company of family and friends more than ever before!