What You Should Buy: Games for the Holidays!

By Heidi Febinger on

About Heidi Febinger

Heidi is currently pursuing her PhD in neuroscience with a focus in neural engineering. In her free time, she enjoys playing board games and video games, DMing, rock climbing, hiking, chatting with Geeklies, and collecting cats. Please chat her up on Twitter @PandaBumHah

 

Choosing a game for the holidays should consider age and personality of the players, theme, and the amount of time between opening presents and the next meal. The holidays will likely include people who are new to gaming, so it is important to consider great gateway games. If you are not spending the holidays with hardcore gamers, not everyone will be concentrating solely on the game you are playing. So it might not be the best time to bring out a game that requires everyone’s attention at all times and has a large rule set (so it might not be the best time to try out Twilight Imperium…). Try to choose a game that people can chat over. If your family does enjoy games or are seasoned gamers, try to choose one that will incorporate everyone in the family.

Below are some recommendations for games that can be played in different holiday settings.  

  • Ticket to Ride – Great fun with the kids

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Number of Players: 2-5 players
Playing Time: 30-60 minutes

Ticket to Ride’s concept sounds boring when you describe it. But once you have convinced people to sit down and give it a go, the smooth mechanics of the game really bring it alive. In Ticket to Ride, players build railways across continents as designated by Destination Cards. The longer the railway, the more points the players earn. 

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The rules of the game are very easy to teach and learn, making it one of the best “gateway games” out there. However, don’t underestimate the simplicity of this game. The game’s mechanics challenges players to consider tactical maneuvers while balancing greed and practicality.  Not only is it a great game that is inclusive of all members of the family, but the game also does not require constant attention. Players can have casual conversations with onlookers or leave the table briefly to tend to the cooking. One downside is that cats (well my cats) love this game and LOVE batting around the trains. So don’t take your eyes away for too long!

  • Codenames – For the large, social family

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Number of Players: 2-8+ players (no real limit, in my opinion)
Playing Time: 15-30 minutes

In Codenames, players are divided into two teams and are tasked with figuring out which “codenames” are associated with their team. Each group has a leader who gives their team clues about the codenames associated with their agents. It’s up to the team to figure out which agents are on their side without intercepting an agent on the opposing team, a civilian, or the assassin. These codenames include a word that is associated with tiles laid out on the table and a number which indicates the number of tiles that correspond with the given word. For example, “Cat 2” means that there are two tiles laid out on the table that are associated with the word cat. Then comes the hard part: the team leader must keep their mouth shut and not show any expression on their face while they listen to their teammates reason their way through the team leader’s logic. Oftentimes, everyone is wrong and everyone uses terrible judgment. But that’s why this game is so much fun!


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Vlaada Chvatil is a genius at board game design. He consistently introduces novel mechanics that are executed beautifully. Codenames is probably the most played game in both my non-hardcore and super-hardcore gaming groups. If you have a family that is large and loves doing things together as a group, this is a fantastic game. There is no real limit to the number of people on a team, and the quick turnaround guarantees that many people can have a go at being the leader.  

  • Galaxy Trucker – For the small group  

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Number of Players: 1-4
Playing Time: 60 minutes

In Galaxy Trucker, players build a ship capable of carrying cargo and surviving the dangers of outer space. The game happens in two phases: the ship-building phase and the flying phase. During shipbuilding, players grab tiles from the middle of the table and piece together a space ship. It’s difficult because to build the best spaceship, you need the most of every component available; the rulebook even says so. But space to build is extremely limited, and not all of the tiles line up perfectly with each other. After the ship is built, you fly it through outer space. This is when you immediately regret all of your decisions. By flipping over event cards, players decide whether to take certain jobs, attempt to dodge from asteroids, and escape space pirates. Any of these events can cause a piece of your ship to be destroyed. If you didn’t design your ship well, this can lead to large chunks of your ship falling off. Losing pieces of your ship costs money, and sometimes you can lose your cargo and crew. The game consists of building progressively bigger ships and ends after three rounds. The winner with the most money at the end wins.  
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Vlaada does it again! This game is fantastic, and I have actually played this with family at Christmas. It does require a bit more concentration than the previous two games described, but it’s worth it. Its unique mechanics are intuitive and easy to pick up. I would recommend playing one practice round first where everyone practices building a ship. I have found that my engineering friends are the best at this game…  

  • Dead of Winter – For the hardcore board game family

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Number of Players: 2-5 players
Playing Time: 45 – 410 minutes

Some families are blessed with a multitude of wonderful board gamers. If that is the case, Dead of Winter is a perfectly thematic game for the holidays. Though zombies have been a bit overdone in today’s pop culture, Dead of Winter does zombies right. The game is heart pounding and intelligently designed. Players take on the role of survivors of a zombie apocalypse and must work together towards a common goal. However, for a player to achieve victory, they must also attempt to accomplish a personal goal that is kept secret from the rest of the group. Sometimes these secret goals can be harmless, but there are a couple of options that can work against the common objective and maybe even cause the player to betray the group. This game is very story-centric and requires more attention than the games listed above. However, if your group for this holiday season enjoys a strong theme about surviving a harsh winter while also causing players to debate between the good of the group versus their own needs, this is a fantastic choice. What a perfect point of discussion during the holidays that stress caring for one another selflessly.  

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There are many more options in addition to the ones I mentioned above. Please share some of your ideas and experiences in the comments below!

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