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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{ 5 comments to read ... please submit one more! }

  1. These are great ideas for Christmas gifts!!! I especially love the Battlestar Galactica game. My husband is a huge fan so I’m going to check this out. Thanks!!

  2. Wonderful to see new game ideas. Games can be used to bond a family together.

  3. What a comprehensive list! I’ve always loved to play games. If I didn’t have to make money, I’d be playing one or more of these these all day long. :-)

  4. Yes, there is a BIG difference between gamers and non-gamers. Present buyers need to know the difference. Thanks for the post.

  5. Wow, I thought I knew games, but I guess not! I didn’t recognize most of these! Except for Ticket To Ride and Set, these were all new games for me! I loved the show Battlestar Galactica so that looks cool. Also the Cartagena game. That is one I think I will put on my Christmas list!

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