Unplugged: 2009 Holiday Boardgame Guide

Since 2003, I’ve been taking a look at some of the best boardgames have to offer and serving up my recommendations to folks at this site.  While video games have made great strides providing more social games, boardgames have always been an excellent way for friends or family to get together and enjoy a common experience.  Boardgames also have an advantage over video games because they don’t go out of style due to changes in technology.  Games from that first 2003 holiday guide are just as enjoyable today as they were six years ago.  But to keep things “fresh” here are a few more recent titles that may be just the thing to get for your special people this holiday season.

Each game is listed along with the recommended number of players, ages, and the MSRP price.  Most stores will offer them at discounts of 10 to 30 percent.  The price of boardgames may seem expensive when compared to the latest Monopoly knock-off, however these games have quality (often wooden) pieces, high production values, and will last far longer than your typical video game at a similar price point.  You won’t find most of them at mega-mart, but you can order them off the internet or check your local game specialty store.  They will either carry them or be able to order them for you.

Party Games There’s nothing like a fast-playing boardgame to help break the ice at a social gathering. These games have short rules explanations, play quickly, and can accommodate many players.

*Wits & Wagers expansion by North Star Games  (3-7 players or teams, 10+ yrs,  $30 or $15 for the expansion)

witsandwagersexpansion.boardgameWits and Wagers is a great trivia game that doesn’t require trivia knowledge. Players start by attempting to answer a numerical trivia question (like “in feet, how tall is Everest?”) and the answers are arranged in order. Players then bet on the best correct answer from among all the choices showing. Knowing the correct answer is great, but knowing who probably knows the correct answer is just as good.  After several years of great popularity, North Star Games have released an expansion set of questions.  With more experience under their belt, these new questions manage to fit the game well, offering a challenge to most but providing plenty of room for educated guesses.  Some were even written by Ken Jennings (that Jeopardy Guy), who became a fan of the first edition.

*Incan Gold by Gryphon Games (3-8 players, 8+ yrs, $20)

incangold.boardgameIncan Gold is a quick, fun and tense game in which you and other adventurers you’re your luck as you explore an old Incan temple in search of treasure. In each of the five rounds, players secretly choose to continue exploring the temple or retreat to the safety of the camp with their treasure discovered so far. Explore too long and you’ll lose all your treasure gathered that round.  Easy to learn and play, it goes over great with grade school kids as well as adults.

Kid’s Games It’s great fun to play with your kids, but not if the game bores you to tears. Here are a few games for kids 6 or older that are also fun for adults.

Go Away Monster! by Gamewright (1-4 players, 3+ yrs, $12)

goawaymonsterIn my 3 year old’s favorite game, players have a bedroom with four open spaces and take turns picking cardboard pieces out of a bag and placing them on their board.  The first player to complete their set wins the game, but that really isn’t of interest to young gamers.  The appeal here is what happens if you accidentally pick out a monster tile (which are cleverly similar to the bedroom pieces).  If a player picks out a “monster” piece, they take it and throw it into a pile and say “GO AWAY MONSTER!” (Yes, it is a requirement to say it using all caps.) My son gets so into this part, that he is constantly hoping to draw out a monster tile.  If “successful”, he’ll pick it up and run all the way into the other room, chucking it past the toddler-gate into the living room yelling “Go Away Monster” at a healthy volume.  Who can argue with the fun of that?  The only caveat is that we always need to count up the monsters before putting the game away, a 3 year old can throw little cardboard squares farther than you think!

Litterbug – Travel Edition by Goliath Games  (1+ players, 3+ yrs, $13)

travel_litterbugThis game consists of a plastic trash can (just a bit bigger than a fist).  There are buttons all around the outside of the lid.  Take turns pressing the buttons and sooner or later (randomly determined), a fly will pop-up out of the lid like a jack-in-the-box.  Played as a game, players take turns pressing buttons and you are “out” if you make the fly appear.  Reset the game by pressing the fly back into its spring and continue until only one player is left.  Not really much of a game, but this is a great toy.  It is all one piece, so no little pieces to get lost and pressing the buttons are rather fun, the tension just increases until that fly finally pops up.  The game is rated 4+ I believe but any kid who can be trusted not to break off and eat the fly would have a great time with it.  At this price it makes a good (if a tad bulky) stocking stuffer.

Animal Upon Animal by HABA USA (2-4 players, 4+ yrs, $20)

animaluponanimalA dexterity game based around stacking little wooden animal figures on the back of a wooden crocodile.  Each player starts with one of each animal (large bulky sheep, thin curvy snakes, the pointed toucan, etc…) and the first player to place all their animals wins.  On your turn, roll the die and then follow the directions.  A player typically places an animal of their choice onto the pile.  However, other events include the “good fortune” to place two animals, to place an animal of your opponents’ choice, to place an animal adjacent to the crocodile (and thus increase the play area), or even the chance to hand off an animal of your choice to an opponent to place.  If the animal pile stays upright, great!  If not and some animals fall off, the current player has to take back a few of the animals into their pile.  (This is a great rule in that you don’t have to take all of them back, thus even inept players will eventually finish the game.) This is the type of rare kids game that goes well with all ages.  It is officially 4+, but my eldest can participate since it is simply a matter of stacking.  (We tend to place the animals in a stack and the die gets used to knock them all down, c’est la vie…) Older (ahem… adult) players can also have fun with the game.

Family Games These games are appropriate for a wide age range, most play quickly (under an hour), and have fairly simple rules – just right for a family game night.

Galaxy Trucker by Rio Grande Games (2-4 players, 10+ yrs, $75)

galaxytrucker.boardgameThis fun game may look expensive, but open it up and you see a pile of components including a large group of square tiles that display components of a space ship.  Start the game timer and players race to grab tiles from the pile in order to construct the best spaceship.  Tiles give players additional cargo space, crew, laser cannons, shields, or engines.  Don’t forget the all important connector tiles which help hold your ship together.  Once the ships are built, players proceed through a deck of cards that represent their journey across the galaxy.  Pick up cargo, defend from pirates or meteorites, or trade with planets along the way.  Players are awarded money for arriving first, keeping their ships in one piece, and delivering cargo.  The player with the most cash after three rounds wins.  By being generous with the building rules, even younger gamers can get in the game.  I’ve found the spaceship building and constant action are a great hit with both the younger set (8-12) as well as adults.

FITS by Ravensburger (2-4 players, 8+ years,  $33)

FITS_ComponentsIf games and puzzles are their thing, look no further than the new game FITS by Ravensburger. It can best be described as competitive Tetris. Players use Tetris-like pieces to slowly fill up their play area. Played over several rounds, the game gets particularly interesting when players need to leave specific spaces uncovered while simultaneously trying to cover up others. The non-confrontational style of the game (you can’t mess with anyone else’s board) makes it nice for family or solo play. Additional game boards are free to download online, giving the game even longer legs.

*Heroscape by Hasbro  (2-4 players, 8+ yrs, $40)

heroscape_marro_master_setPart boardgame part action figure set, this simplified wargame is all fun for the target young-teen audience. Players choose an army from a wide variety of plastic figures and then fight it out over customizable, stackable terrain. Rules are simple and the game plays fast but retains some basic tactical choices such as elevation and terrain considerations. Each unit or squad has different strengths and weaknesses lending the game a high replay value right out of the box. The game can be found in most stores, but it is so popular it is regularly out of stock.  If you can’t find the Swarm of the Marro master set, the newest master set will be released in January 2010.  It is a tad smaller and has a Dungeons and Dragons theme. Gamers who want to expand their collection can buy some of the many available expansion figures. Thankfully, the expansions are NOT collectible so gamers can choose exactly which armies they want to add to their game. Heroscape’s colorful figures and excellent game rules are a near-guaranteed hit for any young male’s holiday gift.

Tales of the Arabian Nights by Z-Man Games (2-6 players, 12+ yrs, $60)

Arabian_Nights_boxThis game is a sort of cross between a boardgame and a choose-your-own-adventure novel. Players go on quests and adventures resolved (in part) by reading a developing story (there are 2000+ tales to experience), in an effort to become the most successful hero or heroine of all!  With many pages of story, the game encourages reading and works best as a story experience and less of a competitive boardgame.  One word of warning, the game can be rather long, about 30+ minutes per player.  If you’re looking for a creative, fun family experience be sure to check it out!

Family Strategy Games Games with a bit more depth and planning, but still accessible by a wide age range.

Pandemic by Z-Man Games  (2-4 players, 10+ yrs, $35)

pandemic.boardgameI have a soft spot for cooperative games.  They are easy on beginners since everyone is on the same team, winning or losing together.  Pandemic stands out since it avoids a common problem by having a strong replay value.   Players coordinate to stop worldwide epidemics by collecting sets of cards (to cure each of four diseases) while simultaneously trying to stamp out any disease outbreaks that occur.  Every turn is a tough decision (fish or cut bait?)   Curing all four diseases will win the game, but if you don’t keep the diseases in check, outbreaks will occur and cause you to lose the game.  The important game locations are randomly generated each time and each player is granted a different special ability.  Using everyone’s special abilities appropriately is the key to winning.  Several levels of difficulty scale the game from moderate up to extremely challenging.  If you already have the game (which has won numerous awards this past year), be sure to check out the recent expansion, On the Brink.  It has nifty Petri dishes for storing cubes, more player roles, and several new game variations (including one where a player takes on the role of an intelligent disease.)  The best new cooperative game I’ve played in years and my wife’s current favorite game.

Finca by Rio Grande Games  (2-4 players, 10+ yrs, $40)

finca.boardgameIn Finca, players are trying to score points by collecting and delivering fruit.  You’re your pawns around a rondel (circle) to gather fruit or choose to deliver fruit to collect tokens worth points.  Extra points are awarded for collecting sets of fruit tokens or for having the majority of a fruit delivered when a stack of tokens is exhausted.  When enough spaces are cleared the game ends.  While not a complicated game, there are still some strategic and tactical decisions to be made.  Should I collect sets or try to get majorities of fruit?  Should I horde fruit or deliver as quickly as possible?  What keeps the game from becoming a bit too dry are four rules exceptions given to each player to use once during the game.  Choosing just when to “break” the rules is key to winning.  The game is colorful and has great bits to help attract the game-adverse and it is a unique candidate in the family-friendly category.  It plays fast even with four players (under an hour), making it a good warm-up game for a longer gaming evening.

*Dominion by Rio Grande Games (2-4, 10+ yrs, $45)

dominion boxMy favorite game of this past year, Dominion challenges players to use a starting deck of cards to purchase more cards. Those purchased cards are then added to the deck and can be used to help purchase more cards. Players continue to improve their deck of cards until the end of the game looms near and they being purchasing victory point cards. Victory point cards do not help your deck at all, they simply get in the way. However, at the end of the game, the player with the most victory points wins.  Experienced players can get through games in as little as 20 minutes. While some cards are basic to the game (money and victory point cards), there are 10 stacks of special action cards that can be bought in each game. These 10 action card stacks are chosen at the start of the game from 25 different possible ones included in the box.  Two expansions have been released.  Dominion: Intrigue also contains everything you need to play but is slightly more complex as most cards offer players an additional decision when played.  The Dominion: Seaside expansion just contains a new set of 25 or so action cards including some cards that have an effect this turn and next.  With even a single basic set, there are a huge number of variations of 10 action cards in any game, making sure it doesn’t grow stale any time soon.

Smallworld by Days of Wonder  (2-5 players, 8+ yrs, $50)

smallworld.boardgameIf you’re looking for a combat-oriented game but don’t want to deal with piles of dice or long playing times, take a look at Smallworld.  This remake of an old classic has players taking on the roles of several civilizations throughout the game.  Use one race of creatures to take over part of the land, but you have limited units.  Once you’ve expanded as far as possible, you need to retire your army and start over with a new race.  This is the key to playing well.  If you wait too long your race will stagnate.  Combat is resolved with a simple majority wins, so it is up to players to make their own luck.  Every race has a basic ability and this is paired with a random special ability to make every game different.  I’ve found this is a great game for adults and a huge hit with the male teenage crowd who like a bit of conquest and conflict in their games.

Strategy Games A few games for those that like a deeper, longer game experience. Both of these are older titles, but are worth a look by gamers who know they like to make hard decisions in their boardgames.

In the Year of the Dragon by Rio Grande Games  (2-5 players, 12+ yrs, $45)

intheyearofthedragon.boardgameYou are a small provincial ruler in China, trying to keep up with the demands of the year.  Survive plagues, famines, taxes to the emperor, and invaders long enough to celebrate with a fireworks display or two!  At first, the game seems like you are trying to survive one disaster after another but with experience players can actually slowly grow their province.  Players hire on workers and then choose a role each round to help them cope with current and upcoming events.  With several possible winning strategies, too many things to do and not enough time to do them, it is a rewarding strategy game playable in just over an hour.

Age of Steam by Eagle Games  (3-6 players, 13+ yrs, $50)

ageofsteam.boardgameNot new by any means, but no less than three different versions were published in the recent past.  There is an entire section dedicated to “train games” where players pick up and deliver goods using trains in order to try to develop the most lucrative company. The grand-daddy of them all, Age of Steam (FRED Distribution) is often considered a harsh mistress.  Small mistakes early on can quickly spiral out of control, making it a rewarding challenge for gamers looking for a fun challenge. A revamping of the system was produced this year simply entitled Steam: Rails to Riches (Mayfair Games) which has some optional rules to make thing friendlier. Finally, the flashiest (fancy plastic pieces and large game boards) version comes in the Railways of the World (FRED Distribution) version which is perhaps the most forgiving and easiest for beginners to grasp. All of them tend to run a bit long (2 hours or more) but provide a rich gaming experience.  Most versions have expansion maps of all sorts, allowing gamers to pick their favorite area and see how successful of a rail baron they can become.

Stocking Stuffers Something small enough to fit into a stocking, but packs a solid gaming punch.

Martian Fluxx by  Loony Labs  (2-6 players, 8+ years,  $16)

martian_fluxIf you have always felt there was too little zaniness in your games, look no further than the game Fluxx. The card game starts with two basic rules – draw one card and play one card. As the game progresses, players add new rules (like changing the number of cards drawn or played) and even change the final game-ending goal (such as trying to have both the Sun and the Moon card in play.) The new Martian version (last year there was a Monty Python version) has a strong B-movie sci-fi theme. Players might need to collect the the Earth, crop circles, etc… In a nice twist, many of the collected cards (called Keepers) are humans, and you CAN’T win if you have any humans. (Some cards let you get rid of human cards, and there are always exceptions.) As with standard Fluxx, there isn’t a deep game here but there is a fun social activity full of surprises and laughs as cards are played. The game is very chaotic and fun with the right crowd and usually can be played through several times in a single hour.

*No Thanks! by Z-Man Games (3-5 players, 8+ yrs, $9)

nothanks.cardgameThis simple card game gives every player a few negative point chips which are spent in order to NOT take a face-up card (worth from 3 to 35 points) off the central deck. As players pass on a card, that card continues to gain negative chips until someone runs out of chips or simply chooses to take that card. Players thus collect cards throughout the game, spending and collecting chips along the way. Once all the cards have been distributed, the player with the fewest points wins. Collecting cards is sometimes not as bad as it sounds, as a run of several cards counts only as the lowest point total. The player with the LEAST points at the end, wins.  Until Dominion came along last year, this was easily my most frequently played game of all time.  (It’s so portable, quick, and easy to teach!)

*Hall of Fame: Games indicated with an asterisk are not new to my list.  However, they are so darned highly recommended that for some categories with fewer choices, I had to include them.

No matter what toys and presents the holidays bring, be sure to keep time in your schedule for playing with friends and family. The games here come highly recommended to provide fun for a wide range of players, but there are plenty other choices available. For recommendations from past years, stop by the Unplugged Holiday Guides for 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008.   Have a great holiday season!

4 Responses to “Unplugged: 2009 Holiday Boardgame Guide”

  1. Though I am more of a wargamer, I do occasionally wander outside of the genre. I just picked up Pandemic to play with my daughter, as I find it fun to play cooperative games with kids. Arkham Horror is another great co-op game, IMO. I love Small World, though I find it plays better with more than 2 players.

  2. Arkham is a bit long and fiddly for me to enjoy with new gamers who don’t know what to expect (as well as the darker Cthulu theme) so I’m not as into it. I haven’t played Smallworld with 2, but could see its not as fun as more, but one thing about 2 players is there isn’t the political brinkmanship that can happen in a game with more players.

  3. Most of those games are available through Amazon — you could make them affiliate links and maybe people could send a few bucks your way while buying their Christmas presents!

  4. Thanks, James!

    Note that there IS an amazon affiliate link on the right side of the page there… just no direct links to the games… (That link goes right into the GamingWithChildren coffers… so helps to keep the site going…)

    Perhaps next year I’ll include specific game links… it’s a bit more work but we’ll see if it generates anything. (I’ve done similar things before but it typically isn’t too big of a thing…)

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