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Games for Christmas: Buying for Nongamers

One of the great things about board games is playing them with family, but it can be a challenge to find games that everyone (gamers and non-gamers) will enjoy. To many people, shopping for board games means getting a themed version of Monopoly, while many gamer’s games will seem intimidating to the average person. The following recommendations should be fun for gamers and non-gamers alike; most of the games have reviews on this website. (Click the links to see the games on Amazon, but you can find most of these at your local game store)

Dexterity Games

Dexterity games tend to have simple rules and be easy for everyone to play, so they’re ideal when people with widely differing ages and experiences will be playing. One of the best ones is Crokinole, in which players attempt to hit pieces so that they go into the center hole of the board, while knocking off their opponents’ pieces. The game is best with two teams of four and is the most expensive suggestion on this list, with boards often going for $200 and up.

A somewhat cheaper option is Pitchcar, in which each player has a small car disk that they’re trying to flick around the track (hopefully without going off!) Part of the fun in this case is constructing the track (you can put together multiple sets and expansion packs to make the track as long and complicated as you want), which may increase the appeal to kids.

My personal favorite is Loopin’ Louie, which (as you might guess from the name) is a rather silly game in which a mechanical plane moves around the board and you hit a paddle to send Louie away from your chickens and towards your opponents’ chickens. Although this was marketed as a kids’ game, adults seem to enjoy it just as much, and there are even regular tournaments. This is perhaps the easiest game on this list for adults and children to compete in on an equal basis.

Cooperative Games

In cooperative games, rather than being one player or team against another, everyone works together to defeat (or lose to) the game. Aside from eliminating the problems with one person being better at a game than the others, it can turn the gameplay into more of a social experience (and lessons the sting of defeat!) There are also semi-cooperative games, in which one or more players (often referred to as the traitor role) are (sometimes secretly) opposing the others.

Probably the best coop so far in Pandemic, in which players race to find cures for four diseases which will otherwise wipe out the world. The base game takes 2-4 players, while adding in the expansion allows you to play up to five, make the game more difficult, and even let one person take on the role of a bioterrorist, spreading disease for the others to stop. You can set the level of difficulty for each game to ensure that it gives the right amount of challenge, and it’s short enough (half an hour) to easily play several games in a row – which is good, because people often insist on it!

Another popular game, Battlestar Galactica is considerably more complex (and longer!); this is not one you’ll want to try with kids who have a low attention span (or adults who don’t appreciate backstabbing). Based on the 2004 TV show of the same name, the game is an exercise in paranoia. Most players are human, attempting to reach their new home after the Cylons (humanoid robots) attack, but a few are secretly Cylons themselves (and might not even know it). If the fleet runs out of food, population, fuel, or morale, the humans lose; if they make it to Kobol, they win. If they work together effectively, they’ll make it…but much effort will be devoted to figuring out who is secretly a Cylon and plotting the destruction of humanity!
No knowledge of the show is required to play the game, but the gameplay really does match the theme.

Card Games

Almost everybody has memories of playing card games with their family, whether it be hearts, spades, go fish or old maid. Modern card games have the same advantage of being easy to transport and (usually) fairly inexpensive. One of my favorite games is called Tichu; it’s a ladder game for four players (two teams of two). A ladder game is similar to a trick-taking game (like hearts) but players put down hands of cards (such as three of a kind) as well as singles, and may pass. While Tichu comes with rules for a three-player variant (Trichu), it’s really a four-player game; there’s a newer game called Haggis which plays similarly but requires exactly three players.

Looking to play with just one other person? Lost Cities is a fun two-player card game in which players compete to create the most valuable expeditions. You can start as many expeditions as you want (up to 5 – one of each color) but be careful…it costs money to start each one, and doing too many means you may not have time to finish and could end up losing points..

Cartagena is another one of my favorites; like Lost Cities, it’s not strictly a card game due to the inclusion of a small board (in this case, a modular board which goes together thousands of different ways to make each game different) but is card-driven. It’s largely a set collection game, where you’re attempting to get all of your pirates off the prison island and onto the lifeboat before everyone else; once someone sets all six pirates aboard, it will sail away. The cards depict stereotypically piratey object – the jolly roger, a bottle of rum, a captain’s hat, etc – and playing one lets you pick up any of your pirates and move him to the next space with that symbol that isn’t currently occupied (or onto the board if there are no such spaces). It’s a simple little strategy game that takes 2-5 people and plays quickly. The game is also reimplemented as Cartagena II, with the escaped pirates attempting to make it to the Pirate’s Nest.

Mass-Market Games

Some games are popular enough to have made it into big-box stores like Target and Toys ‘R Us, while still appealing to gamers. Ticket to Ride (and its umpteen variations) is a good example; it’s easy to find and most people will enjoy it. Hey, That’s My Fish! is an inexpensive strategy game that’s simple enough for kids and deep enough for adults (and also comes in a deluxe version if you prefer to grab your fish using fancier penguins); the rules can be explained in less than a minute. Set is great for large groups, because it takes any number of players and doesn’t suffer from people joining and leaving over the course of the game; it challenges people to find sets of three cards where each attribute (shape, number, color, filling) is either the same or different on all three cards.

This list barely scratches the surface of what’s out there, but these are all great games that both dedicated gamers and people who normally think “board game” means “Life, Monopoly, or Battleship” can enjoy. Why not pick up a few as Christmas gifts?

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The Best Family Board Games

One nice thing about board games is that they’re something the whole family can enjoy; I still have good memories of playing Hearts with my parents whenever we went on vacation. It can be challenging to find games that will keep the entire family interested, however, especially when young children are involved. Here are my picks for the games that will give the kids a fair shot at beating mom and dad, without being a total luck fest (no Candyland here!) Why not make one or two of them part of your next family game night?

Apples to Apples

Ok, this is a party game,  and it does involve a bit of reading, but once the kids are old enough to read the cards themselves there’s no reason why they can’t participate fully. The premise of the game is simple: one person puts down a green apple card, which is an adjective (funny, disgusting, etc) and everybody else plays a red apple card (a noun) face down.  The person who played the green apple shuffles the red apple cards, reads them (to much laughter), and chooses the best one; the player who submitted it gets a point

While some cards in the basic Apples to Apples game may be a bit obscure for kids – heck, I’m in my thirties and I don’t know who a number of the people on the cards are -you can get also get Apples to Apples Junior, which contains more kid-friendly words such as Unicorns and Burned Toast. Apples to Apples Junior is recommended for ages nine and up, and when one of the kids is judging, the other kids might have an easier time of it than Mom and Dad..

Why it’s one of the best family games: easy for everyone to play, difficult to take seriously, and entertaining even for adults

Loopin’ Louie

This one might be a bit hard to find, unfortunately; I ended up having my copy shipped from Europe. It’s totally worth it, however; this is the one game I’ve found that absolutely enthralls both kids and adults. It’s a bit of a dexterity game, but one in which the kids might very well win in spite of the adults’ best efforts!

Each player gets three chickens, and your goal is to keep Louie from scaring them off. Louie flies around in a red biplane (yes, this is a battery-operated game) and will knock over your chickens when he comes near your side of the board; however, you have a lever you can hit to send him flying off in another direction, hopefully into someone else’s chickens. The last player with a chicken remaining wins the game. You can also play in tournament mode, where the winner of each game starts with one fewer chicken in the next game, and must take three games to win.

Loopin’ Louie sounds really simple, and it is, but it’s surprisingly addicting. The first time I played, I kind of got dragged into it because someone was leaving and they wanted a fourth (although the game takes 2-4); I ended up playing 18 games of it that night, largely against the kids, and ordered my own copy shortly thereafter.  I’ve since brought it out at several adults-only gatherings with similar results: even the people who weren’t playing felt compelled to watch and laugh. Highly recommended, if you can find a copy!

Why it’s a great family game: very addicting for kids and adults alike, while being entertaining for anyone watching

Diamant / Incan Gold

Diamant, later rethemed as Incan Gold, is a press your luck game in which the fearless youngster may well outscore all the adults. (Of course, she might also go home broke..but she’ll have fun trying!) Like Loopin’ Louie, it has the advantage that everyone plays at the same time, which makes it harder to get bored. Each turn, a card is revealed: if it’s a treasure card, players split the loot. At any time, you can return to your camp and get your treasure tucked safely away, or you can continue in search of more riches. However, there are also several dangers you could encounter, including (depending on the version) rock slides and scorpions, or giant spiders and mummies. Encounter the same danger twice on one expedition and you’re forced to drop your loot as you perform a reverse advance…that is, run away quickly! After five expeditions, whoever has successfully returned with the most treasure wins the game.

Why it’s a winner: Plays quickly, without giving anyone a chance to get bored; has enough elements of bluffing to keep the adults interested, and enough luck to give the kids a decent chance at winning the game

Clue: Master Detective

Who doesn’t remember playing Clue when they were growing up? I still recall the one time I played against my mom, made it to a room on my second turn, made a suggestion she couldn’t counter, and immediately made an accusation to win the same.

Of course, that was the problem with Clue: someone who got a lot of rooms in his hand of cards had a decided advantage over the other players, and even without that there was always the chance of a lucky guess propelling you to victory early on. When those things didn’t happen, though, Clue was a great deduction game.

This brings us to Clue: Master Detective. This is almost exactly the same as the basic clue game (although there are a few small rules changes), with one exception: more of everything! More rooms, more murder weapons, and of course more suspects. The number of suspects is increased by more than the number of rooms, which reduces the luck factor a bit.

With this game being a definite improvement over standard Clue, it’s unfortunate that it’s currently out of print. That said, if you don’t want to spring for a second-hand copy,  the original is still a great game, and you can always find a recent version for under $20.

And it was Mr. Green, in the study, with the lead pipe.

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