It’s that time of year again! Trying to figure out what games to buy for a budding game is never easy. Board games vary wildly in complexity and general appeal. Here, we’ll give some ideas, primarily stemming from what we’ve reviewed this year—and with some caveats.
As a rule of thumb, we’d generally advise against buying long, complex, or expensive games as gifts. Being able to open a gift and enjoy it relatively quickly makes for a much happier holiday. Also, if the gamer in your life has already hinted at what they want, trust them over us! Lastly, we are diligently avoiding games that have rarely been in stock, or aren’t released yet. To help you get a better sense for the kind of games we’re suggesting, we’re starting with our simplest offering and moving continuously up the scale to a heavier game at the end. So, if you want to ignore the advice at the beginning of this paragraph, scroll straight down to the end!
Simply click on the underlined anywhere in the article to be taken to our reviews. Alright, here we go!
Chris:SiXes is a loud party game, shoved into an unassuming little box. Impressed after my first game, and convinced after my third. SiXes surprised me with intuitive rules (once you get past how nondescript they are) in which any human being can understand and enjoy. It’s not going to win a single award for graphic beauty, but it will certainly create memorable evenings with riotous laughter. Huge ups for this one.
Derek: 2015 was a banner year for board games, with award-winning hits like Blood Rage, Pandemic Legacy: Season One, T.I.M.E. Stories, and many more. I’m finally at a place where I think I’ve played just about every big game from last year, and I still maintain that Codenameswas the best game from 2015. It’s unique, funny, cerebral, educational, and most importantly it lets you connect with the other players on a deep level. Codenames Pictures is more accessible and equally awesome—I’ve just chucked it all together in one box at this point.
Derek: Have you ever had tried, and then failed, to get a Dungeons & Dragons campaign going? Welcome to the Dungeon takes the idea of a dungeon delve and shortens it to 20-30 minutes, and also turns it into a bluffing game. Players take turns making the dungeon worse, or making the adventurer weaker, until everyone chickens out. The last player then takes the adventurer into the dungeon—and they either succeed, scoring a point (two wins the game), or they fail and take a hit (two, and you’re out). That’s it! It’s a great theme condensed into a great, quick package for 2-4 players. And if you want more variety, there are four new adventurers and variant monsters in Welcome Back to the Dungeon.
Vincent:Coupoffers players a quick, satisfying game of bluffing and manipulation in order to further their own power within the court of the dystopian future that is the setting of this game. Players take control of one of five characters in order to knock their opponents out of the game, bringing them one step closer to victory. With a game time of about 15 minutes, Coup makes for a great game if you’re looking for something quick and easy to play. (Be forewarned that outright lying about what cards you have is part of this game.)
Chris:Sushi Go! used to be just a good game for new gamers. Now, we have Sushi Go Party! and I’m telling you straight up: If you like any kind of board/card game, you need to buy this one. It’s got everything. Cute, colorful art. Simple card drafting and set collection mechanisms. Plays quickly. It’s worth every dollar and is a huge upgrade from the original.
Derek: Although Bingo really isn’t much a game so much as a waiting exercise, its concept is a good one. Given the same set of parameters, how can player paths diverge so that someone comes out the winner? This concept has been used in several recent games, but Karuba does it best. Players are moving explorers through a jungle by placing tiles or discarding them for movement, but every player uses the same sequence of randomly-chosen tiles. Although the interaction is minimal, it is present, and the game has a tense race-like feel to it. It’s also beautiful, and extremely simple to learn and play. I’ve never played this only once in a sitting, either.
Vince: Set in ancient Egypt, players become architects with the intention of matching the ruthless determination of one of the greatest Egyptian architects to ever live, Imhotep, by placing stone blocks on ships and sailing them to build sites. Imhotep requires players to think ahead and carefully plan out their moves because their opponents have the same goal, to become the greatest builder in Egypt. Players must do what they can to complete their goals while blocking their opponents at the same time. The board game tiles have two sides and they can be mixed and matched, ensuring that you never play the same game twice, giving this game almost endless re-playability.
Chris: A tiny step up in complexity from Ticket to Ride, New York 1901 puts players in the role of an early New York era city planner, responsible for controlling city blocks by building and upgrading skyscrapers. New York 1901 has enough strategy to satisfy heavier gamers, while being simple enough to game alongside new players. Fun artwork and components complement this wonderful release.
Isle of Skye
Derek: I have to admit: in 2015, I missed this one. In a year of incredible games like Pandemic Legacy, Blood Rage, and Codenames, I overlooked this gem. Then in 2016, it won the UK Games Expo award, and then the Kennerspiel des Jahres (advanced game of the year in Germany). These awards were well-deserved. This game is amazing!
It looks like Carcassonne and maybe even quacks like it a little, but Carcassonne it is not. Players build their own personal kingdoms, yet the game is highly interactive. Tiles are bought from other players in a weird sort-of-auction mechanism, where the brain-burning part is done simultaneously, so there’s no downtime. The game is over in an hour, but the variable scoring and random tile draws ensure nearly infinite re-playability. We’ll have a review eventually, but you can hear my gush more about Isle of Skyehere.
Chris:Lords of Waterdeep is the kind of quintessential worker placement game that belongs in everyone’s gaming collection. It has a fun, albeit typical, fantasy theme, but has lots of re-playability via two enticing expansion modules. It’s relatively easy to teach, and is complemented by an excellent insert, and lovely components and artwork (although many don’t like the cubes). In fact, do you know someone who already has this game and loves it? If so, a set of DnDeeples could be a great gift!
Chris: Likely the most hyped game of 2016, Jamey Stegmaier’s Scythe exists in an alternate history post-WWI timeline with serene artwork and design. Scythe boasts the typical Stonemaier Games production quality and has stuck solidly near the top of most board game ranking lists. I don’t think it’s particularly innovative from a gameplay perspective, but it definitely has left a lasting mark on the industry for the better. Scythe is an adventure, and leaves you feeling as if you’ve created a beautifully well-oiled machine, while feeding the people, and marching mechs across a war-torn landscape.
Chris: Carrying with it a potentially three-hour long playtime, Dominant Species remains one of the most interesting worker-placement games I’ve had the pleasure of owning. I’m engaged the entire time, fending other players off my valuable hexes, and trying to take away their food supplies in order to wipe them out. This is easily the heaviest game from our list, but plays exceptionally well, with tons of player interaction, and lots of exciting moments.
These pics definitely cover the entire spectrum, and we hope we’ve given you an idea for that special gamer in your life. If not, there’s always card sleeves and dice! Have a wonderful Christmas remembering the birth of our Savior, no matter what gifts you give or get.
I've been a board game reviewer since 2011. I love card-driven games and party games. I have a Ph.D. in Mathematics and teach the subject at Taylor University in Upland, IN. My wife and kids are my favorite gaming partners.
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