Gaming

Ars Technica’s ultimate board game gift guide, 2019 edition

Ars Technica’s ultimate board game gift guide, 2019 edition

It’s that time of year again—time to buy more board games than you possibly have time to play.

To aid you in your quest, we’ve once again updated our massive board game buyer’s guide for the year by adding new entries, pruning some old ones, and bringing things in line with our current thoughts. This isn’t necessarily a list of our favorite games of all time; it’s just a big list of games we’re recommending in 2019. The list is divided into sections that cater to different audiences, and we think there’s something here for just about everyone.

Whether you’re looking to pick up your next cardboard obsession or need a gift idea for your weird cousin who’s always going on about “efficient resource trade routes,” you’re in the right place.

Table of Contents

For fun, here’s a giant gallery of the box art for every game in this guide:

Note: Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

Family and new gamers

If you’re new to gaming (or simply trying to hook the unconverted), this is your section. Each game below is great for playing with people who are just dipping their toes into the big board game ocean. Colorful pieces, simple rules, and addictive gameplay—they don’t call them “gateway games” for nothing.

Splendor

2-4 players, 30 minutes, age 10+, $ 36 on Amazon

We’ll take any chance we can get to recommend the 2014 classic Splendor. A staple of game nights everywhere, this accessible “engine-building” game tasks players with collecting gems (represented by poker chips) to buy cards, so they can buy cards worth points, so they can be the first to accrue 15 points. You can teach it to almost anyone, and it plays in a breezy and always-escalating 30 minutes. If your giftee doesn’t know the first thing about board games, start here. And if they already have the base game, consider picking up the new expansion.

Azul

2-4 players, 30-45 minutes, age 8+, $ 19 on Amazon

The words “instant classic” are overused in board gaming, but if Azul doesn’t fit the bill, no game does. The title took home the prestigious Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award in Germany this year, and it has quickly solidified its place in the “gateway” games pantheon.

Based on Islamic-inspired Portuguese tiles called azulejos, this family-weight abstract involves collecting sets of similar tiles and slotting them into rows on your personal game board. When a row is completely filled, one of its tiles is moved over into the square pattern to the right, garnering bonuses depending on placement. Turns are quick, and each set of tiles you grab creates both problems and opportunities for other players. There’s a tinge of “meanness” for players who are sensitive to that sort of thing, but it’s essential to Azul‘s wonderful interactive tension.

Gorgeous bakelite-style tiles seal the deal on a beautiful production. Read our review here.

Reef

2-4 players, 30-45 minutes, age 8+, $ 34 on Amazon

Reef tasks players with constructing colorful coral reefs out of chunky plastic pieces, which is a tactile joy no matter your age. Its rules couldn’t be simpler, but the game presents plenty of difficult tactical decisions to keep both newbies and more seasoned gamers engaged. On your turn, you can do one of two actions—take a card from the central display or play a card from your hand. Cards give you new pieces to place on your player board while simultaneously presenting scoring opportunities if you’re able to match the pattern shown on the card. Sounds easy enough, but making everything work out in your favor is harder (and more fun) than it sounds.

Reef comes to us from the same company that brought us Azul and the designer who brought us Century: Spice Road. Read our review here.

Kingdomino

2-4 players, 15-20 minutes, age 8+, $ 20 on Amazon

Kingdomino is a dead-simple tile-laying game in which you try to group different areas—ocean, wheat field, mine, etc.—of your kingdom in order to score points. Some tiles have crowns on them. At game end, each set of contiguous area tiles is scored by multiplying the size of that area by the number of crowns on its tiles. Simple? Sure, except that you have to keep your kingdom within a 5×5 grid, and every area tile must be placed such that it touches an existing tile of that type. To make this even trickier, new tiles come out of the box and are chosen in player turn order—but the tile you take in one round determines your player order in the next. Take the better tile now and choose last in the next round? Or grab something not quite as good that will still get you first or second pick next time? This is a smooth, quick-playing game that has worked well with both kids and adults—even providing some surprisingly decent choices for seasoned gamers. A worthy winner of 2017’s important Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award in Germany.

Kingdom Builder

2-4 players, 45 minutes, age 8+, $ 30 on Amazon

How’s this for “accessible gameplay”? Kingdom Builder, which won Germany’s prestigious Spiel des Jahres award in 2012, can be taught in less than five minutes and gives each player just one card per turn—but it also offers a modular board, different scoring cards for each game, and unique bonus powers. While the rules here are easy enough to grasp, Kingdom Builder goes well beyond our gateway suggestions in the strategic thinking it requires. Placing three of your settlements each turn onto a large and lovely map sounds simple enough in practice, but making proper use of the required terrain cards, snagging the most useful bonus powers for your strategy, and puzzling out ways to earn maximum points based on each game’s scoring conditions is far more difficult than it looks—especially with three or four players cluttering up the board. Multiple (good) expansions are available, including one that adds a fifth player color, but the base game should keep you occupied for quite some time.

Next steps

If your want slightly more complexity than games in the previous section, here are some “next step” games that kick things up a bit but still remain accessible for new gamers. This is a super-popular category, so we’ve expanded it to include extra entries this year.

Wingspan

1-5 players, 40-70 minutes, age 10+ (Prices on Amazon are currently over retail, check your local shop)

If you only heard of one board game that was released in 2019, chances are good it was Wingspan. Wingspan arrived on the scene at the beginning of the year, and it proved so popular that it was almost impossible to buy until well into summer (its availability on Amazon still fluctuates—your best bet is to hit up your local game shop if you have one). It’s not hard to see why. Stonemaier Games’ trademark stellar production is on full display here with a package that includes colorful player boards, 170 unique and beautifully illustrated bird cards, plastic eggs so lovely you’ll constantly fight the urge to eat them, and, yes, a bird house dice tower.

Birds are represented by cards, and you slot those cards into rows on your personal player board to score points and gain special powers. Each row is keyed to a certain action—scavenging for food, laying eggs, etc—and when you perform that action, you also activate all the special powers of the birds in that row. Start with nothing, and by the end of the game, you’re drowning in worms and eggs (this is… a good thing).

Wingspan is a perfect “next step” game that’s quick to teach and a joy to play no matter your gaming experience level. Read our review here.

Parks

1-5 players, 40-60 minutes, age 9+ (Prices on Amazon are currently over retail, check your local shop)

As we said in this year’s Gen Con roundup, we’d be tempted to recommend Parks based solely on its beautiful presentation. Featuring artwork from the excellent 59 Parks Project, the game’s components are front and center, making for one of the most eye-catching games of the year (and can we talk about its perfect box insert?!)

But a game is nothing without compelling gameplay, and Parks thankfully brings along plenty of fun decisions for newer gamers and old hands alike. The game tasks players with making their way down a hiking trail using two hikers, with each space granting you resources or special actions. Any hiker on a space blocks other hikers from landing on it, so the trick is finding the best spots to exploit and the best time to hop on down the trail.

At the end of the trail, you can trade your resources (sunlight, water, mountains, trees, etc.) to visit a national park. Does this make sense? Not really. Is it fun? Yes. You’ll also be taking pictures of your travels, buying equipment to help you along your way, and filling up your trusty canteen whenever the opportunity presents itself. Pick up this delightful little game for the outdoors enthusiast in your life.

Quacks of Quedlinburg

2-4 player, 45 minutes, age 10+, $ 34 for UK edition, $ 55 for US at Amazon

Northstar Games

A ridiculously fun press-your-luck bag-building game about being a charlatan at a medieval fair, hawking crazy potions that you mix up out of dubious components plucked unseen from your stash. Each one makes the potion stronger, but beware the white berries—too many and your cauldron will bubble over. The game has wonderful, whimsical art, terrific replayability, and great components—including rubies and rat tails. And because everyone builds their potions simultaneously, this is another game with almost no downtime between turns.

Quacks won the prestigious Kennerspiel des Jahres game award in 2018, and with good reason. You’re not technically required to love it, but if you’re a gamer (or in love with one), you should at least try it.

Gizmos

2-4 players, 50 minutes, age 8+, $ 50 at Amazon

CMON

An elegant engine-builder with marbles, Gizmos is an intriguing design from the prolific Phil Walker-Harding (Bärenpark, Sushi Go, Imhotep, Cacao). Buy new gizmos, gather energy to power them up, then trigger the whole shebang to create cool combos and make your machine even better. Apart from the marbles, the game is not a marvel of graphic design, but it’s terrific fun to play. Despite the complexity of some of the combo possibilities, even my seven-year old was soon building machines on his own. The game came out in 2018, but it has already risen to #44 on BoardGameGeek’s ranked list of family games. It’s a position that’s well deserved.

Dice Forge

2-4 players, 45 minutes, age 8+, $ 36 at Amazon

Pure engine-building fun with chunky plastic dice. On each turn, you roll your dice, store up resources, and then purchase cards that give you special abilities or—and here’s the game’s “gimmick”—buy even better die faces. That’s right: much of the game consists in buying more powerful resources from a large tray of faces, then replacing an existing face on one of your dice. By game’s end—about 45 minutes—you’re rolling killer combos every time.

The game is one of the most gorgeous presentations I have ever seen in board gaming, the die faces come off with a satisfying “pop,” and there are more available card powers than you can use in a single game. Terrific family entertainment.

Machi Koro Legacy

2-4 players, 1 hour, age 10+, $ 33 at Amazon

I didn’t like the original Machi Koro. It had too many “take that” cards and several fixed strategies that felt constraining. I sold my copy and moved on.

BUT THEN. Machi Koro Legacy came out, and it promised to fix the game’s issues. Players still roll dice, activate buildings that have the dice number on them, and buy new buildings to crank up their engine. But the initial set of cards contains no “take that,” and each playthrough of the game adds new cards, fun little plastic bits from secret boxes, rule tweaks, and different objectives. Everything feels more dynamic.

As with most “legacy” games, you end up writing on player mats, placing stickers, and making other irrevocable changes that customize your copy as you play. But unlike some other legacy games, Machi Koro knows that it’s a lighter offering. It offers 10 defined campaign plays, rather than the 15-20 plays similar games sometimes require, after which you can continue to play the game without further changes. Rule tweaks and innovative mechanisms are fun but modest, so you don’t find yourself scared to play after setting it aside for a couple of weeks. It’s pure fun, and I’ve had a blast playing through the campaign with two of my kids—even if I’ve only won a single game.

Century: Spice Road

2-5 players, 30-45 minutes, age 8+, $ 28 at Amazon

Some have billed Century: Spice Road a “Splendor killer,” but don’t listen to them. While the game feels similar in many ways to the modern classic engine-builder, Century is slightly more complex, and its tactical card-drafting gameplay gives it a different overall feel. Here, you’re building a hand of cards that lets you collect and upgrade spices in a race to fill point-scoring orders. Each turn, you either buy a card, play a card, or take all your discarded cards back into your hand. You essentially build your own strategy as you go, so assembling an efficient production chain is key to success. Its admittedly tired trading-in-the-Mediterranean theme shouldn’t turn you off; the game is an absolute joy to play (a rethemed “Golem Edition” is available on the publisher’s website, as well).

Istanbul: The Dice Game

2-4 players, 20-30 minutes, age 8+, $ 22 on Amazon

Nate Anderson

Sometimes you want games to bring the pain: tough decisions, losses and reversals, “take that!” attacks from other players. But sometimes you just want a game to shower you with riches, to remove the roadblocks, and to rain down gems and resources upon you in a race for the finish. And you want that feeling in 20 minutes.

That’s when you reach for Istanbul: The Dice Game. With quick setup, lightning-fast play, and some basic engine-building, this is a race for rubies in the vein of its big brother, Istanbul, but without the movement. Roll some dice and get some stuff, which you can use to buy tiles that get you even more stuff. Acquire extra dice, bonus actions, or re-roll crystals—or just stash goods to use on future turns. But don’t wait too long to purchase rubies; with every one bought, the price of the next one increases. Read our full review here.

Sagrada

1-4 players, 20-40 minutes, age 14+, $ 30 on Amazon

Constructing real stained-glass windows may or may not sound like a good time, but it’s pure pleasure in the world of Sagrada. In this dice-drafting game, players take turns picking dice from a pool available each round, then slotting those dice into the “window” they’re constructing on a personal player board. The boards themselves dictate where certain dice can go—only red dice here, only 2s here—while the game itself has its own global placement rules. The trick is combining these placement restrictions with the dice on offer in any given round to maximize points based on the four different scoring cards that shape each game (three of these cards are public, one is private to each player). Because this can be difficult, the game also offers “tools” that can alter some of the rules—for a fee. Sagrada plays quickly, looks gorgeous on the table, and is a satisfyingly thinky experience with low rules overhead. Highly recommended for gamers who like solving puzzles.

Lords of Waterdeep

2-5 players, 60-120 minutes, age 12+, $ 38 on Amazon

Lords of Waterdeep is a game set in the Dungeons and Dragons universe, but it’s not a “D&D game.” Absent are the dice, dungeon tiles, and sword-wielding minis you’d expect; instead, the game comes with meeples, wooden cubes, and a victory point track—all the markings of a Eurogame. If you’ve been wondering what this whole “worker placement” craze in board games is all about, Lords of Waterdeep is the perfect introduction. Simple rules combine with addictive “collect resources to complete quests” gameplay to deliver a full board game experience that newer players can sink their teeth into. The theme is light and fairly inconsequential, so even those who don’t know the difference between a goblin and a bugbear can still have a blast.

Midweight strategy

For many people, midweight strategy games are the sweet spot between brain-burning, all-day affairs and lighter, “filler”-type games. These games generally play in an hour or two and provide a ton of interesting decisions for people with a little experience under their belts.

Kemet

2-5 players, 90-120 minutes, age 13+

Aaron Zimmerman

Love Eurogames but yearn for a theme that doesn’t put you to sleep? Kemet is essentially a “dudes-on-a-map” wargame mashed up with a Euro-y area-control game—and it’s awesome.

The game takes place in a mythological ancient Egypt, where warring factions ride massive creatures into battle to vie for control over powerful temples. The game is a race for points, with variable end points depending on how long you want to play. You’ll be purchasing new abilities from a huge central market (which also includes the cool monsters you can wreak havoc with) and maneuvering around the battlefield picking fights with your friends. Combat is handled through cards, and it’s based on strategic mindgames as opposed to lucky dice rolls.

The game supports up to five players, and it’s at its best at higher player counts. If you can’t get enough of the base game, a few expansions are available. If you’ve ever wanted to scream into battle on the back of a giant scorpion, Kemet is your game.

Viticulture: Essential Edition

1-6 players, 45-90 minutes, age 13+, $ 45 on Amazon

Viticulture—”the strategic game of winemaking”—straddles the line between the “next steps” and “midweight strategy” categories. Its worker placement gameplay is more complex than that seen in Lords of Waterdeep, but it’s still easily manageable for those just beginning to wrap their heads around strategic Eurogames. Viticulture tasks players with building up and operating a successful winery, which is just as lovely as it sounds. Beautiful components combine with card-heavy worker placement gameplay to make for a game that has rightfully earned its place in many board gamers’ hearts. The Essential Edition comes with a decent amount of expansion content, and it’s all modular, meaning that you can add and remove complexity as you like.

Lorenzo il Magnifico

2-4 players, 60-120 minutes, age 12+, $ 48 on Amazon

CMON

Lorenzo il Magnifico is an extremely Euro-y Eurogame. Players are the heads of noble families during the Italian Renaissance, competing to score points through efficient worker placement and economic engine construction. A “Vatican track” seals the “dry Euro” deal—you climb the ranks by obtaining “prayer points” in order to avoid the nasty effects of “excommunication tiles.” Riveting stuff.

But the game puts some interesting twists on well-worn gameplay tropes, most notably in its worker placement. At the beginning of each round, three colored dice are rolled, which are keyed to specific workers in each player’s employ. The number on each die determines its corresponding workers’ power for the round—if you roll a 5 on the orange die, every player’s orange worker has a power of 5. The higher the number, the better stuff you can get from the main board, including resources and, most importantly, cards. The cards drive your strategy; you can construct a resource-production chain, go heavy into the military, or recruit helpers that give you special powers.

One of our favorite Euros from the past several years, and we love Euros.

Coimbra

2-4 players, 60-90 minutes, age 14+, $ 45 on Amazon

Aaron Zimmerman

One of the bigger midweight Euros of 2018, Coimbra—from two of the designers of the excellent Lorenzo il Magnifico—is as good as you’ve heard. Coimbra‘s theme is standard dry Euro fare (you’re scoring victory points to become the most prestigious house in 16th-century Portugal), but the game’s production is anything but bland. An explosion of colors and beautifully illustrated components backs up the game’s compelling play, which involves drafting dice that affect almost every other thing you can do. What order you pick character cards in, how much they cost, what faction they can be from, what resources you generate that round—everything is tied to the color and number on the dice you choose. We love it when a game’s systems all key off a seemingly simple decision, and Coimbra is a textbook example of this idea in action. Not just a pretty face, Coimbra is a keeper.

The Castles of Burgundy

2-4 players, 30-90 minutes, age 12+, $ 30 on Amazon

A bland theme, dry artwork, chintzy components—and some of the best gameplay you can find in a board game. For our money, this is legendary designer Stefan Feld’s best game, and that’s saying a lot. In Castles of Burgundy, you’ll compete with your opponents to grab hexagonal tiles that you slot into spaces on a personal player board to build up your kingdom. Each tile you place gives you a special action, and the crazy combos you can pull off will make you feel like a genius. Castles also features some of the best dice-rolling mechanics in any strategy game. A nice card game version is also available, but we recommend going for the full thing. An essential for any serious Eurogamer’s shelf.

Roll for the Galaxy

2-5 players, 45 minutes, age 13+, $ 41 on Amazon

Roll for the Galaxy is a streamlined, dice-game version of the modern classic card game Race for the Galaxy, but it’s decidedly not Race for the Galaxy: The Dice Game. That is, it’s not a dumbed-down snoozer or Yahtzee-aping cash-in like some dice-game versions of other board games. It’s also a much easier game to teach to newcomers than the notoriously arcane Race. Roll sees you collecting dice and laying tiles to create the best civilization in the galaxy. Your dice, which represent workers in your empire, provide you with flexible options and a fun mini-puzzle to solve every round, and there are always ways to mitigate the luck of the roll and bend the dice to your will. Roll for the Galaxy is highly replayable, fiendishly addictive, and very quick to play once everyone knows what they’re doing. And it comes with 111 colorful custom dice and rocketship-themed cups to roll them in.

Concordia

2-5 players, 100 minutes, age 13+, $ 48 on Amazon

Concordia exemplifies a common board gaming buzzword: elegance. The rules are simple for a midweight Eurogame, but the explosion of strategic options those rules open up is dizzying. Part deckbuilding, part resource management, part economic route-building, Concordia tasks players with expanding a Roman dynasty across the Mediterranean, building cities, establishing trade routes, and, of course, jockeying for position against other players. All of the game’s mechanics notch together in a wonderfully complex clockwork, forcing you to consider how every action you take affects the many competing and intertwined goals that make up your overall strategy. We could not recommend this game more highly.

Thematic games

From dice-chucking “Ameritrash” to text-based crime solving and cooperative legacy-building, these are our picks for those who want to be completely immersed in their tabletop experience.

Gloomhaven

1-4 players, 60-120 minutes, age 12+, $ 110 on Amazon

When we said that Gloomhaven is the best dungeon crawl board game we’ve ever played, we meant it. A game of almost obscene excess, Gloomhaven‘s 20-pound box is filled to the brim with hundreds of cardboard tokens and dungeon tiles, dozens of decks of cards, 17 plastic miniatures (each with its own pack of accoutrements), sheets of stickers, and a bunch of mysterious sealed boxes. The game’s co-op campaign, taking place on 97 different maps, will take you well over 100 hours to complete. But best of all, the gameplay is fun, deep, and different. There are no dice—everything is driven by multi-use cards that represent both your stamina and the moves you can do, which makes for much more strategic play than your run-of-the-mill dungeon crawler.

Gloomhaven‘s $ 140 price tag doesn’t put it in impulse-buy territory, of course, but if anything, the game is underpriced due to the ridiculous amount of content on offer. If you have a group with the wherewithal for Gloomhaven‘s “legacy”-style campaign play (and the patience for its admittedly arduous setup), this is a board game experience of a lifetime. Read our review here.

Imperial Assault

2-5 players, 60-120 minutes, age 14+, $ 68 on Amazon

The latest iteration of Fantasy Flight Games’ long-running and ever-more-finessed dungeon-crawling ruleset combined with a Star Wars veneer, this is probably the purest and best distillation of the genre on the market today. Imperial Assault is a romp from start to finish, with one to four players taking the role of a crack team of rebel heroes, fighting another player who either controls the might of the Empire and its many storm troopers or various other villains from the Star Wars movies and expanded universe. (A brand-new app allows up to four people to play the game fully cooperatively.)

Various cleverly linked narrative campaigns offer months of entertainment for a dedicated group, while the skirmish mode allows two players to select small armies and battle one another on an equal footing—two very different games in one admittedly expensive box. Of course, this being a FFG game, there are expansions. Forty-eight, in fact, at last count, including five big boxes, dozens of miniature packs, and seven skirmish maps. More are on the way because Fantasy Flight can’t seem to help itself—and Star Wars is the IP that laid the golden egg. Read our review here.

Mansions of Madness: Second Edition

1-5 players, 120-180 minutes, age 14+, $ 87 on Amazon

Mansions of Madness‘ first edition, released in 2011, was a flawed-but-beloved Lovecraftian horror game that played a bit like an RPG-lite in board game form. Up to four players took on the role of characters investigating a mystery in a creepy mansion, with another person playing as the Keeper, a dungeon master who controlled the monsters and kept the pre-written stories humming along.

With last year’s second edition, the job of Keeper was outsourced—to your tablet. An app now controls the narrative so that players can unite for a totally cooperative experience. Mansions of Madness: Second Edition has all the hallmarks of a big-box Fantasy Flight game—huge theme, lots of dice rolling, and high-quality components. If your giftee likes thrill-ride, funhouse horror board games, this game needs to be on their shelf. You can read our review here.

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: Jack the Ripper & West End Adventures

1-8 players, 1-3 hours, age 10+, $ 45 on Amazon

Nothing puts you into Holmes’ shoes—or his distinctive deerstalker—like Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (SHCD), a deduction adventure that has been around for decades but has finally gotten a lavish new edition and some revised cases. SHCD isn’t a traditional “game;” it’s a cooperative affair that involves your team trekking across Victorian London, reading interviews, and perusing newspaper articles for clues. The more locations you visit, the worse your score. Can you beat the master, Holmes himself, to the solution? Well… no, you can’t, but that’s hardly the point. These are terrific (and surprisingly well-written) multiplayer adventures. Buy the second set of cases and you’ll be treated to a linked series of Jack the Ripper mysteries that culminate in a chance to stop Jack himself.

Pandemic Legacy (Seasons 1 and 2)

1-4 players, 60 minutes, age 13+, S1 $ 57 on Amazon, S2 $ 54 on Amazon

Hands-down one of the greatest experiences you can have on the tabletop, Pandemic: Legacy and its sequel are a lesson in what this hobby is capable of. (Read our reviews of Season 1 and Season 2.) Best played with the same group of players over the course of several months, you cooperate in a desperate battle to save the world from a series of devastating diseases. The great trick here is that you play the same game two dozen times, but every time you do, something changes for good. There are hundreds of stickers which permanently affect the board and change the rules, while cards, characters, and powers are literally ripped up as you go, driving forward a story chock-full of in-cred-ib-le twists and turns. You don’t need to have played the first Pandemic: Legacy to play the second, which is set 71 years later in a much-changed world and unfolds quite differently (but just as thrillingly). Between them, these games offer an experience like no other.

Heavier fare

Longer and more complex, the games in this section are “gamer’s games.” Here are a few recommendations to keep those brains churning.

Terra Mystica

2-5 players, 60-150 minutes, age 12+, $ 60 on Amazon

Z-Man Games

At first blush, Terra Mystica looks a bit like perennial gateway game Catan, what with its board made of multicolored hexagons and its wooden settlement pieces. But whereas Catan is a game often used to introduce people to the board game hobby, Terra Mystica is generally reserved for board game veterans. The game revolves around players competing to build the best kingdom by managing workers, terraforming the board’s seven landscape types, building and upgrading settlements, and committing priests to different cults. Each of the game’s 14 fantasy races plays completely differently from one another, with different powers, resource conversion rates, and even building costs. While the game has a veneer of fantasy theme on it, it’s mostly a mathy, thinky strategy game. (Gaia Project, a space retheme with some slight differences, came out last year.)

The more players you have, the more interesting the game becomes, and we’d recommend at least three players for the full experience. All information is open, and there’s almost no luck involved, meaning that skill alone will lead you to victory. This also means that vets have a distinct advantage over newbies. But Terra Mystica is a game about building a kingdom, and that’s fun even if you don’t come in first.

Terra Mystica is an undisputed modern classic for a reason—it’s deep, complex, interactive, and very, very fun.

Spirit Island

1-4 players, 90-120 minutes, age 13+, $ 54 on Amazon

Many board games put you in the shoes of colonizers exploiting a “newly discovered” land and its people. Spirit Island turns this all-too-well-worn theme on its head, letting you and up to three friends play as the spirits defending an island being ravaged by outside explorers. Like Pandemic, it’s a cooperative game—all players fight together against the game itself—but unlike Pandemic, it’s not for board game beginners. The deep card play and complex upgrade paths make for a decidedly thinky (and crushingly difficult) co-op experience, and if you or your giftee is the type of gamer who loves long, brain-burning turns, Spirit Island is a great buy. If you get bored of the base game (unlikely—there’s plenty of content, here), you can always pick up the game’s Branch and Claw expansion. Read our review here.

Scythe

1-5 players, 115 minutes, age 14+, $ 65 on Amazon

Set in an alt-history 1920s Europe, Scythe suits players up in giant mechs to spar for control over hexes on a giant board. But although it looks like a big ol’ wargame, Scythe is actually a deep, puzzly Euro. Wins usually hinge less on overt violence and more on how effectively you’ve been able to set up an efficient production chain. Military posturing—puffing up your chest to dissuade other players from horning in on your slowly growing kingdom—provides the game with a constant source of tension and interactivity.

Scythe is a huge, lavish production with top-of-the-line components and fantastic gameplay. Playing a game of Scythe feels like An Event, even though it won’t take you the entire day to get through. Highly recommended. You can read our review here.

Feast for Odin

1-4 players, 30-120 minutes, age 12+, $ 79 on Amazon

In many ways, A Feast for Odin is a mashup of key design ideas from Uwe Rosenberg’s impressive oeuvre—there’s the sandboxy worker placement of Caverna and Fields of Arle, the occupational strategy-coaxing of Agricola, and, of course, the Tetris-style spatial puzzling of Patchwork and Cottage Garden. That it all fits together into a cohesive, deep, and fun experience is a testament to Rosenberg’s near-unmatched design chops.

Board games have reached “peak Viking” territory, but the theme works well here. You’ll be hunting, gathering, pillaging, and exploring in order to fill your player board with the spoils of a Viking life well-lived. The huge, player-driven openness of the game can be overwhelming, but that vastness gives the game an incredible depth and the potential for some big-time replayability. In short, it’s complex bliss.

Terraforming Mars

1-5 players, 120 minutes, age 12+, $ 45 on Amazon

Mars games were in vogue in 2017, but Terraforming Mars is the unquestioned daddy of the genre. It packs a hefty punch into its two-or-so hours, and there’s something ineffably satisfying about watching the desert bloom under tiles of ocean and grass.

Terraforming Mars has piles and piles of colored and metallic cubes that really make the experience on a primal level, but the artwork is unfortunately a bit bland and unpolished. That does really matter when you’re having so much, though. It’s a game of card drafting, as players take on the role of corporations paid to turn the Red Planet green. You start with lichen and balance six resources in the hope of ending up with cities and oceans. If there’s one criticism, it’s that there’s not much player conflict, but Terraforming is a deep and deeply replayable puzzle. Read our review here.

Card games

Don’t want to break out a board and a million little cardboard pieces? From drafting to trick-taking to everything in between, these card games are great for beginners and vets alike.

Marvel Champions: The Card Game

1-4 players, 45-90 minutes, age 14+

If you or your kids are fans of both Marvel and Magic-like card games, you can safely stop reading now and just pick up this game. If you need some more convincing, read on.

Marvel Champions is essentially a streamlined (and somewhat pared-down) version of Fantasy Flight’s very popular Lord of the Rings Card Game system, with some fun superhero-specific mechanics thrown in to keep things optimally thematic. You play the game cooperatively with up to three friends—we recommend solo or 2-player games to keep things moving—and fight against the game itself. Choose a scenario, choose a hero deck, and you’re off.

Victory requires spending time in both your hero and alter-ego forms, thwarting the villains’ nefarious schemes (“thwart” is an actual hero stat) and just beating the living snot out of the villain himself. The heroes in the core set are Spider-Man, Iron Man, Black Panther, She-Hulk, and Captain Marvel; the villains are Rhino, Claw, and Ultron. Marvel Champions is a Living Card Game, which means new (non-randomized) expansions will be released on a regular schedule. And for the first time ever, you can fully engage in the game’s (simple) deckbuilding with only one core set. Progress, FFG!

Point Salad

2-6 players, 15 minutes, age 10+, Amazon link

Yes, it’s a set-collection card game about vegetables—but don’t let that turn you off, even if you haven’t eaten a Brussels sprout since the Nixon administration. The game takes only a moment to explain, but the interest comes from the fact that each card back contains a unique scoring condition. Each player has to balance available veggies and available scoring cards to maximize their point haul, but this is a dynamic exercise that depends on which veggies are available, which scoring cards come up, and what your neighbors are collecting. Each round takes under 15 minutes, making this a great one to bring out after weeknight dinners for a few rounds of min-max optimization exercises. It’s never been so fun to collect onions.

Arboretum

2-4 players, 30 minutes, age 8+, $ 17 on Amazon

The only component in Arboretum is a deck of 80 cards composed of 10 colored suits that represent different species of trees. The goal of the game is to create beautiful paths of trees that start and end with the same suit, with ascending numbers in between. On your turn, you draw two cards (either from a deck or your opponents’ discard piles), play a card to your arboretum, and then discard a card. Every player has their own dedicated discard pile, and the trick is seeing what suits your opponents are playing and trying not to feed them those cards through your discards. To add even more tension, you need to have the highest total value of a suit in your hand at the end of the game to score that suit’s path, which makes managing your hand an exercise in careful balance and vicious hate-drafting. What appears at first glance to be a lovely little card game about trees is, in fact, a cutthroat, sweaty knife fight.

Arboretum was originally released in 2015, but it was so hard to get hold of that Renegade Games’ new version might as well be the game’s true release. If you’re into tense card games with plenty of difficult decisions, you’ll love Arboretum.

Port Royal

2-5 players, 20-50 minutes, age 8+, $ 17 on Amazon

Port Royal is a press-your-luck card game in which up to five players compete to score the most victory points by trading with ships, hiring assistants, and fighting pirates. On your turn, you start flipping cards over from a central deck. You can stop whenever you want and take a card from the spread, but the longer you draw, the better your options are. Assistants cost money (represented by a gold coin on the back of the cards) and give you points and special powers you can use for the rest of the game. Choose a ship card to gain the money listed on it. But if you flip over two ship cards of the same color, you bust and lose the rest of your turn.

We’ve been recommending Port Royal to friends for years, but until last year, Americans had to import a copy from Europe if they wanted to join in on the fun. Thanks to Steve Jackson Games, the game is now available in your local game shop. The main difference with the new version (besides the box art) is that the ship flags have gone from easily readable colors to more complicated nation flags—a downgrade, to be sure. Still, Port Royal is a blast that scratches both engine-building and gambling itches, and it’s great as a filler.

Sushi Go Party!

2-8 players, 20 minutes, age 8+, $ 20 on Amazon

This is a cracking party game with many depths hidden under its kawaii exterior. It’s a pick-and-pass game in which you’re scoring points by collecting sets of sushi, desserts, drinks, and sundries, each of which score in different combinations. Everyone gets a hand of cards, plays one face-up in front of them, and passes the rest on until there are none left. Then you go again. There are dozens of different foods in the box, only a handful of which appear in each game; the fun and the complexity come from all the strange combinations you can fabricate by combining them into different menus. Consider the expanded—and barely more expensive—Party version, because it has heaps of extra foodstuffs and accommodates more people. (If you value simplicity over “having more options but needing to build the deck,” just pick up the original version.)

Fabled Fruit

2-5 players, 20-30 minutes, age 8+, $ 45 on Amazon

Collect sets of fruits and turn them into juices. It might not sound interesting, but designer Friedemann Friese has turned a gigantic stack of cards into a game that never plays the same way twice. Cards on the table act as worker placement spaces, each offering some unique, fruit-related action. As players collect relevant sets of juices, they can cash them in for one of the cards on the table, flipping it over to the “juice” side. A new card then comes off the ordered draw stack, often adding a completely new action space to the game. (Each action appears on four cards.) When an existing set of cards is turned completely into juices, its action disappears from the table completely. The result: a simple game that keeps morphing into something new, leading groups of players through new mechanisms, twisting rules, and additional pieces drawn from the box. Not quite a “legacy” game, as it can be reset to its initial state at any time, Fabled Fruit is a terrifically twisty experience worth working through in a group. (If you like the game, the “Lime” expansion came out in December 2017.)

Party

Got more players than the standard two to four? Party games have you covered. Lie to your friends, flex your word-association powers, even pilot a submarine—the games on this list are guaranteed to inject a raucous good time into your gathering. Non-gamer friendly, too!

Resistance: Avalon

5-10 players, 30 minutes, age 13+, $ 17 on Amazon

Lying to friends is fun. As evidence, we present the scores of game store shelves choked with Werewolf-inspired “social deduction” party games. The Resistance is, in many ways, the benchmark for the genre, and the Avalon variant—which adds the role cards that are now a mainstay of such games—ratchets the tension up to 11.

At the beginning of Avalon, you are given a card that tells you whether you’re a good guy or a bad guy. Players then embark on a series of quests; the good guys want to succeed, while the bad guys want to secretly tank the mission. Rooting out the betrayers (or hiding from the noble do-gooders) requires more than a little cunning, treachery, and a willingness to make wild, baseless accusations. (Check out our favorite bluffing game list here.)

Codenames

Codenames: 2-8 players, 20 minutes, age 10+, $ 15 on Amazon
Codenames Duet: 2 players, 20 minutes, age 10+, $ 11 on Amazon

We’ve been told that there are people who don’t like the 2015 smash hit Codenames, but we don’t buy it. Everyone we’ve ever taught the game, from grandmothers to hardcore gamers, has been entranced by its super-simple setup and the exciting space it creates for creative thinking. The game sees two teams racing to cover up cards on a 5×5 grid through word association. On each card is a single word, and the mission is to select only those words that belong to your team. Choosing a word that belongs to the opposing team could give away points, while accidentally selecting the hidden “assassin” card immediately ends the match. The only clue as to which cards are safe to select comes from each team’s spymaster, and their clue can only be a single word followed by the number of cards to which it applies. If you have friends who love to entertain, buy them this game. (It’s currently the top party game on BoardGameGeek.) If you want to play it without a group, we suggest the new Codenames Duet, designed expressly as a co-op for two players; it’s a blast.

Dixit

3-6 players, 30 minutes, age 8+, $ 21 on Amazon

Dixit is, in some ways, like a slightly more complex Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity, but the cards here are all wordless pictures. In each round, one player is the “storyteller” and says a word or phrase that represents a card from their hand. All the other players try to match the idea with a card from their hands, and then all the cards are shuffled together and spread out by the storyteller. The non-storytellers then vote on what they think the storyteller’s card was. If nobody—or everybody—figures out the storyteller’s card, the storyteller gets nothing and all other players score 2 points. The storyteller must give a good clue but not make it too obvious—if they’re able to do this, both they and the correct-guessers get 3 points. Meanwhile, non-storytellers get a point for everyone who voted for their card.

The game works because there are many different elements on each card, and they’re all expressive and open to interpretation. We like to take things a step further by allowing clues to be anything—noises, a dance, whatever gets your point across. Dixit works wonderfully in some groups and not at all in others, and you probably know if it’s right for you group from the description. For a more “gamey” version of the same concept, check out Mysterium.

Coup

2-6 players, 15 minutes, age 10+, $ 13 on Amazon

How good are your friends at bluffing? You’ll soon find out in this snappy game of intrigue-at-space-court in which up to six people—the optimum number—battle to be the last weirdly dressed future aristocrat standing in a deadly game of usurpation and heavy eye shadow. Each player is dealt two cards representing one of five cyberdudes, each with a different power, and then uses those cards to murder one another. The gimmick is that you can use any of the powers, whether you actually have that particular character or not, until someone calls you out. If you’re lying, you lose a life; if not, they do. Two lives and you’ve been coup-ed. You’re dead. And that’s it. There are just 15 cards and a handful of coins in this box, and it is awesome.

Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space (Ultimate Edition)

2-8 players, 20-45 minutes, age 12+, $ 35 on Amazon

Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space (EFTAIOS) has been out for years, but last year’s “Ultimate Edition” feels like a new (and definitive) take on a tough, tense game of “Predator in a space station.” If you like hidden movement and, uh, eating humans—well, this is the game for you. In EFTAIOS, players trapped on an orbiting station become either aliens or humans. The aliens want to find and devour the humans; the humans want to find—and use—the escape pods. The catch is that no one knows anyone else’s role or where they are on the station. Each player tracks their own movements in their personal player book, using a dry erase marker and one of the game’s numerous included maps. Depending on where they end their moves, players may be forced to reveal their true location—or they may be able to lie about their location or say nothing at all.

The result is a tight, tense hunt in the darkness, working out where other players might be and who they are through deduction. Throw in some item cards and (optional) variable role cards and you have one sweat-inducing game. Though EFTAIOS features possible player elimination, rounds aren’t usually long.

Modern classics

Chances are good that one of the below “gateway games” brought you or your giftee into the hobby. If not—if you haven’t played these modern classics—what are you doing?! Pick one up and pretend you’ve been playing it for years.

Dominion

2-4 players, 30 minutes, age 13+, $ 30 on Amazon

Dominion is an enormously popular 2008 card game that set off the “deckbuilding” game craze that rages to this day. The idea is simple. Each player starts with an identical, crappy deck filled with measly coppers and 1-victory-point cards, and you’ll use those cards to buy better cards—higher value money cards, action cards, cards that give you more actions and purchases per round—until your deck purrs like a well-oiled money- and point-generating machine.

It’s kind of like building a Magic: The Gathering deck as you’re playing the actual game. Each game, you’re presented with a shared market of ten randomly determined decks of “Kingdom” cards, and coming up with a strategy of how best to combo cards from those decks is always a blast. Dominion is ludicrously replayable (when you get bored of the 25 decks included in the base game, there are boxes and boxes and boxes of expansions).

Carcassonne

2-5 players, 30-45 minutes, age 8+, $ 29 on Amazon

Carcassonne is one of the absolutely foundational games of the modern board gaming hobby and a classic to grace any collection, no matter how casually or seriously you take it. It’s an initially pleasant and suddenly absolutely cutthroat game of tile-laying, with players gradually building up a high-medieval map of walled cities, churches, pastures, rivers, and other sundries, and scoring points by placing colored meeples to claim areas from the others. The game was first released in 2000, making it positively venerable in board gaming terms, but unlike many titles from that era or afterward, it still stands up to modern scrutiny. It famously has scores of expansions, becoming something of a fond joke in the gaming community. A few of them are essential and can be acquired with certain versions of the base game. Many others are, shall we say, less necessary. It’s also utterly unlike the real Carcassonne, a slightly grimy southern French city also famous for its picturesque castle—a castle that was restored in the 1800s and which in no way resembles any of the authentic structures that previously existed there.

Ticket to Ride: Europe

2-5 players, 30-60 minutes, age 8+, $ 42 at Amazon

Ticket to Ride is fondly remembered by a considerable number of gamers as their first step into the hobby, a lovely peek at the hinterlands that exist beyond Monopoly. Usually, it must be said, this is because it has Monopoly-esque elements: raw capitalism, competition for areas (in this case rail routes between cities), and lots of plastic pieces you use to block your opponents (train carriages). Players take it in turn to draw cards from a deck containing eight different colors of cards as well as wild cards, and once enough have been collected, can use them to lay trains on routes of the same color between cities, hopefully fulfilling hidden orders that score you points by collecting distant areas to one another. But if someone takes the easy route from A to B before you, it becomes a frenzy of sudden recalculation—if you don’t complete all your orders, you lose the points. There are loads of versions, covering the US, India, Germany, the UK and elsewhere in various time periods, but we’ve chosen Europe as the definitive place to start; it’s a slightly larger, more involved map than the US, and the box comes with a few additional elements that make the game deeper. This will be a game that no one will be disappointed to see hit the table, even if people can grow out of it. (It also has a fine app.)

Pandemic

2-4 players, 45 minutes, age 8+, $ 36 on Amazon

While Pandemic has been strictly superseded in the quality stakes by its imperiously remastered Legacy version (see above), not everyone wants to play a massive, massively emotional, narratively linked campaign. Sometimes people just want to sit down with the family and save the world once and for all in a 45-minute sitting, and there’s not much around to top Pandemic classic as an introduction to the heady world of cooperative games. It’s simple and compelling: everyone gets a role—medic, scientist, or similar—and jets around the world collecting cures for four relentless diseases that just won’t go away on their own. Every game rapidly becomes a taut race against time as players battle against two decks of cards—one of which they have to collect, and the other of which keeps feeding more and more colored cubes—representing infections—on cities around the world. It’s a thrill and—unlike with its more glamorous sibling—if you mess this one up, at least you can wipe the slate clean and go again.

King of Tokyo

2-6 players, 30 minutes, age 8+, $ 32 on Amazon

It might be by Richard Garfield, the guy who invented Magic: The Gathering, but King of Tokyo, for all its oodles of charm, is at the opposite end of the gaming spectrum in terms of weight and complexity. The format will be instantly familiar to any gamers old enough to remember the old Rampage arcade game that was ported to the NES and the Atari, but it’s vibrant enough to appeal to their kids (or grandkids) just as well. Everyone takes on the role of a cartoonish Godzilla-alike and battles for supremacy in Tokyo. This is achieved by chucking pools of dice and using them to score victory points—or hits on your rivals. Tactical complexity comes from power-up abilities you can spend certain dice results on, but in essence, it’s all a simple but fierce knockabout battle royale and a perfect gateway drug for a cluster of bored nephews and nieces at a Christmas family gathering. The newest game on this list, we think it has earned its place.

Two-player games

While the majority of modern board games can be played with two players, the best head-to-head experiences are generally those that are designed specifically for a duel. Here are our top picks for this year.

7 Wonders Duel

2 players, 30 minutes, age 10+, $ 27 on Amazon

Can you make a functional two-player version of the modern classic card-drafting game 7 Wonders? 7 Wonders Duel proves you can, and the game is not only functional—it’s fantastic. Eschewing the pass-and-pick drafting of the original game, Duel sees two players fighting over a spread of cards arranged in various configurations on the table. You’re competing to build up the best ancient civilization, complete with constructing as many world wonders as you can manage. The game’s three win conditions—civilian, scientific, and military—ensure that you’re always juggling several plates, and the whole thing plays like a lightning-quick, board-less match of Civilization. Also, check out the very cool expansion.

The Fox in the Forest

2 players, 30 minutes, age 10+, $ 14 on Amazon

Finding truly great two-player trick-taking card games can be tough, and that’s why The Fox in the Forest stands out. Not only is it a two-player-only trick-taker, it’s a great game with some lovely art and well worth adding to your collection.

As with most trick-takers, one player opens by laying down a single card; the other player has to follow the suit of that card if possible. The highest card played wins that trick. But if it’s not possible to follow suit, other suits can be played, and one suit will trump all others, even if not played first. Fox in the Forest tweaks this formula with a series of special cards that let you do things like swap trump suits in the middle of a hand or lose a trick but earn the right to start the next one. In addition, the scoring pushes you to either take no tricks or a lot of tricks if you want maximum points—but don’t take too many or you’ll end up with nothing.

Jaipur

2 players, 30 minutes, age 12+, $ 22 on Amazon

Beside CCG-type card games like Magic or Android: Netrunner, Jaipur is probably our favorite two-player card game. On your turn, you’re presented with a deceptively simple choice: acquire new goods from a central market of five cards or sell the goods you already have. If you decide to sell, you discard all the goods of a certain type and are rewarded with tokens representing money. The value on the money tokens goes down as more and more goods are sold, so you want to sell quickly to get the best price. But if you sell a bunch of goods at once, you’ll get a big bonus. Jaipur is an excellent tug-of-war that provides a surprising amount of tense moments within a small decision space. If you know a gamer couple that doesn’t own this game, buy it for them.

Patchwork

2 players, 15-30 minutes, age 8+, $ 24 on Amazon

Master board game designer Uwe Rosenberg is best known for his heavy strategy games like Agricola, Caverna, and A Feast For Odin, but his collection also boasts a sizable stable of lighter fare. Patchwork—a game about quilting—is perhaps his best title in this category. You and an opponent fight over Tetris-like “fabric” tiles, which are placed on grids to eventually form quilts. The theme sounds odd—especially when you factor in the currency (cute little blue buttons)—but this game has been a massive hit with everyone we’ve introduced it to. Patchwork is quick playing, easy to teach, and filled with a surprising amount of tactics and strategy in each session. For a 1-4 player version of the same concept, check out Rosenberg’s Cottage Garden.

Schotten Totten

2 players, 20 minutes, age 8+, $ 13 on Amazon

I love me some Schotten Totten. A terrific two-player card battle, the game features crazed Scottish Highlanders battling each other across a central set of cardboard “stones.” Players add one card per turn to any given stone, hoping to build a more powerful set of three cards than the competing set across the stone. If they can do so, they win the stone; win enough stones and the game is over.

A Reiner Knizia classic, the game is typically light on both rules and theme, but it delivers compelling choices and a great sense of tension as you work to win your stones. Like another Knizia game, Lost Cities, Schotten Totten encourages you to hold cards in your hand for as long as possible, the pressure building until you finally draw the card that will validate your plan to finish a color run on stone seven… or to start a mono-color run on stone eight. Rounds are over in 15 minutes, and this one can be successfully played by smart kids. (Sadly, my daughter regularly beats me.) A set of additional “tactics” cards in the box provides a more advanced variant.

Escape room games

Escape rooms are hotter than ever, migrating from the real world to the tabletop in the last few years. Typically, players work together to escape some form of imprisonment in about an hour, solving clues and codes to find the way to freedom. Here are four of the top series on the market at the moment; to go a little deeper, check out our feature on the genre.

Escape the Room

Stargazer’s Manor: 3-8 players, 90 minutes, age 10+, $ 22 on Amazon
Dr. Gravely: 3-8 players, 90 minutes, age 13+, $ 20 on Amazon

Some escape room games are simply collections of linked puzzles—just get out of the room, quick!—rather than narrative experiences. But ThinkFun’s Escape the Room series layers some nice narrative icing drizzled across its delicious puzzle cake. The series so far consists of two games, Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor and Secret of Dr. Gravely’s Retreat. Both feature a colored code wheel for solving puzzles—line up the right colors and symbols to see if you’ve solved a particular puzzle correctly. Each adventure is set up with a character- and location-driven introduction, and puzzles often advance the plot by providing notes, letters, lab diaries, etc. By the time you’re done, you feel like a real adventure has unfolded.

Stargazer’s Manor was extremely easy; played in a mixed group of kids and adults, the adults backed off from engaging with the puzzles because they were too often solvable by the kids alone. Because of this, I played Secret of Dr. Gravely’s Retreat with my kids rather than with other adults—but the game stepped up the difficulty significantly and would have been terrific with a mixed group. Pick whichever sounds most appropriate for your group, but know that these are not for “hard-core” puzzle-solvers.

Exit: The Game

1-6 players, 60-120 minutes, age 12+, $ 14 on Amazon

Probably the best of the current “escape room” games, these adventures are just terrifically designed—but they are hard. Don’t bust these games out with young children and expect everyone to have a good time. But with a group of committed sleuths, the puzzles on offer here are fresh, going beyond typical code wheels and ciphers and locks. I’ve played two of these now, and at some point in each game I was blown away by the inventiveness of some game design element. Designed for one-time use, these are still a great value when weighed against the group experience they create. No apps are needed, either.

Exit is one of those games that doesn’t break new ground—but it refines existing elements until they shine. The adventures play smoothly, offering challenge without frustration, and they cost only $ 15 a pop. I’m not alone in this view. The entire series won the 2017 Kennerspiel des Jahres award—a prestigious “game of the year” honor given by German critics to deeper tabletop games.

Unlock!

1-6 players, 45-75 minutes, age 10+, $ 13 on Amazon

The newest entry in the escape room craze comes courtesy of the biggest board game company in the world, Asmodee, which is known for high production values and strongly thematic designs. Each adventure is literally just a deck of cards; these cards can represent objects, machines, codes, or “other” items (rooms, penalties, or obstacles). Each card is numbered, and new cards are revealed from the deck whenever its numbers appear on some other visible card.

The name of the game here is manipulation. Red and blue object cards can be combined; join the right pair, add up their card numbers, and you can reveal that card number from the deck. Green machine cards can be manipulated through adding various numbers (at which point they often become red cards, which can be joined with other blue cards). Yellow code cards require you to enter a four-digit code into the accompanying digital app. The puzzles feel a bit more mechanical than other escape room games; part of this feel might also be due to the fact that the narrative is essentially nonexistent. Each adventure starts with a paragraph of throwaway text and ends by entering a final door code into the app; there’s little attempt to tell a story or set up a compelling situation beyond, “You’re locked in a room! Find a way out!” Not our personal favorite, but the series has been popular with gamers.

Stocking stuffers

Little boxes, low prices, big fun.

Qwinto

2-6 players, 20 minutes, age 10+, $ 14 at Amazon

We live in the age of the “roll and write,” a type of game where you chuck some dice and then mark on a pad. Sound boring? It is absolutely not! For one thing, most roll-and-writes allow simultaneous play; one “active player” may roll the dice each round and take an additional action, but everyone at the table gets to make a mark on every turn. There’s no downtime. As for the “marks,” these can involve crossing out numbers in ascending or descending order (Qwixx), checking off colored boxes (Noch Mal), filling in numbers along three separate lines (Qwinto), checking off states (Rolling America), taking your band on tour (On Tour), ticking off farm activities (La Granja: No Siesta), making roads and rails (Railroad Ink), or building a subdivision (Welcome To…). Some are even “respectably deep” enough to qualify for major game design nominations (Ganz Schön Clever).

All of these are great, but some are tough to get in English. Fortunately, Qwinto is amazing—rules take two minutes to explain but yield devilishly tough choices throughout—and has just appeared in an English-language version from Pandasaurus. For a quick and accessible roll-and-write that will show your family just how much fun games can be this holiday season, it’s hard to beat. Pencils are even included!

Noch Mal

1-6 players, 20 minutes, age 8+, $ 15 at Amazon

Have we reached “peak roll-and-write” yet? The genre—which combines dice rolling and some kind of markup on physical sheets of paper—has taken over the board gaming world in the last couple of years. Noch Mal (known as Encore in English) is one of the best, though. Created by the dynamic design duo of Inka and Markus Brand, Noch Mal is quick to teach, a blast to play, and colorful as an explosion in a rainbow factory. It’s both a puzzle and a race, as all players have to use dice to mark off blocks of colors on score pads—but completing colors and columns first leads to greater rewards. Everyone plays on every turn, so there’s no downtime, and the game even comes with tiny markers and adorable wooden dice. (There are also additional scorepads available for purchase if you want different “boards” to play on.) For $ 15, this is one terrific deal.

No Thanks

3-7 players, 20-30 minutes, age 8+, $ 10 at Amazon

If you know someone who doesn’t own a copy of No Thanks, buy that person a copy of No Thanks. Arguably the simplest title on this entire list, the game consists of a deck of cards numbered 1-30 and a handful of plastic chips. On your turn, you flip up a card from the deck and either take it or put a chip on it, passing the decision to the next player. The goal of the game is to have the fewest points, and since each card is worth its face value in points, you need to be very picky about which cards you deign to add to your collection. You only have so many chips, though, so you’ll inevitably have to take cards, and you’ll always be on the lookout to get a card with a bunch of chips on it to bolster your supply (chips also subtract from your score at the end of the game). If you can string together runs of numbers, you’ll only score the lowest card in the run. Super-simple, super-quick, super-fun.

Friday

1 player, 25 minutes, age 13+, $ 13 on Amazon

A game for your friend who’s always complaining that she doesn’t have anyone to play board games with, Friday is a solo-only deckbuilder. How does the deckbuilding concept translate to a solitaire experience? Surprisingly well, it turns out. In Friday, you play the role of the titular character from Robinson Crusoe, and you’ll help the bumbling Crusoe brave the perils of island living until he’s strong enough to face a ship of pirates circling the island. You’ll get rid of Robinson’s negative trait cards like “Distracted” and “Weak” to make room for more helpful cards like “Experience” and “Realization.” Quick to play, easy to learn, tough as nails. Also, be sure to turn your gaming group-less giftee onto our article on the matter.

Welcome to the Dungeon

2-4 players, 30 minutes, age 10+, $ 12 on Amazon

Your group of adventurers stands at the entrance to a dungeon. Within lies great treasure—and many monsters. Unfortunately, only one hero can enter, and your little band is a back-stabbing bunch; to make its decision, the group plays a game of “chicken” in which armor and weapons are continually pared down, even as the dungeon’s monster count is amped up. You can always pass, thus removing yourself from the round, and the last player left standing must enter the dungeon and fight all the monsters using whatever weapons and armor remain. The tension comes from pushing your luck, trying to make the dungeon battle so difficult that no other player can survive it—but without being forced to enter the dungeon yourself. With four unique heroes, solid artwork, and a low price, this is a great way to cap a night of gaming.

Star Realms

2 players, 20 minutes, age 12+, $ 18 on Amazon

If you’ve ever played deckbuilding games like Dominion or Ascension and thought “this is great, but I really wish I could just blow up my opponent,” Star Realms is the game for you. As in all deckbuilders, you start the game with a crappy deck filled with piddly resources and puny fighter ships, and you’ll quickly work your way up to massive bases and destroyers to smack your opponent with. The game packs an incredible sense of escalation into a quick 20 minutes, the whole thing is just a small deck of cards, and it costs $ 15. Magic as a deckbuilding game—an easy recommendation.

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Gaming & Culture – Ars Technica

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