Unplugged: Holiday Guide 2020

Happy Holidays! Boardgaming continues to make inroads to wider audiences, and there’s no better time to get (or get your friends and family) into the hobby than an extended holiday break. Yes, it is an unusual year so there may not be as much mixing as usual but there are boardgames out there to meet up with almost any taste. If you only have access to online gaming buddies, check out BoardGameArena.com or TableTopia.com. Boardgames are timeless, just as good today as they will be years in the future, so a purchase today will still be serving you well after the lockdowns go away. As we at GamerDad have done for the past 17+ years, it’s time for an annual rundown of recent boardgames well worth your time. Feel free to delve into some past year’s guides for 2019, 2018, or 2017 or older as they’re still great candidates for your consideration. You might not find all these titles at your local mega-mart but many can be found online or in a friendly local game store. Some may argue $50+ boardgames are expensive, but compare that to videogaming (and where multiple copies are required for multiplayer play) or heading out to the movies ($30+ for four people) and the economics of boardgaming shows their true value. For each game I’ve provided the number of players, an approximate MSRP (you might find it lower), and expected time for one game.

Games for and with kids


Games suitable for kids old enough to sit still and play, but contain enough interesting activity to entertain adults.

The Great Cake Escape (2-4p, $25, 15 min)
Here the play centers around a triple-layer cardboard cake with just enough space between layers for players to slide cardboard “tools” underneath. Each player has a set of 11 break-out themed cardboard tools and the goal is to slide one’s tools into the cake without letting any slide back out so they are exposed. Players can only slide in their chosen piece in one direction, often getting stopped entirely in the latter stages of the game. Once all the pieces are in (or have been attempted to be in) the cake, scoring takes place. The player with the most exposed tool on each of the two levels (between layer 1 & 2, and between layer 2 & 3) is penalized and then all the tools are added up. Each tool has a point value (larger tools are worth more points) and the player with the highest score wins the game!


Party Games


The more, the merrier! Party games can accommodate at least 6 players and, unlike some games, tend to be more fun with more players. If you’re only aware of Charades (a classic) or Trivial Pursuit (only fun for know-it-alls) checking out some of these more engaging games will be a real treat.

Just One (3-7 players, $35, 20 minutes)
Just One is a fully cooperative party game of word guessing. Here, players are trying to give the guesser clues but in a roundabout way. Everyone but the guesser is presented with a clue. Players then secretly think up one-word clues that will lead the guesser to the right answer. The trick is that any duplicated clues (two or more people providing the same clue) are eliminated before being given to the guesser. Thus, players are trying to find good clues to give, but trying to be sure their clue is going to be different enough to be unique. It leads to some fun double-think. Do I give a more obvious clue, thinking everyone else will try to be more creative, or do I go with something less-obvious but sure to not be eliminated?

Pictionary Air: Kids vs Grown-ups! (2 teams, $20, 16-60 min)
A follow up to last year’s recommendation of Pictionary Air, the Kids vs Grown-ups edition provides two sets of clue cards. As before, one clue-giver draws out a clue to their team using a light pen and a phone camera. Using an app, a virtual copy of the image drawn appears to the guessers. It’s nothing more than standard Pictionary, but the addition of the augmented-reality light pen gives it a fun twist. The new Kids vs Grown-ups! makes it even easier for younger kids to play. Special clues suitable for kids as young as 6 years old are accompanied by suggested illustrations to make it even easier for the whole family to play.

While these are just a couple suggestions, most party gamers are timeless. You can’t go wrong with past years’ entries such as Codenames, Cheeky Monkey, Telestrations, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, or Wits & Wagers. In fact, Codenames in particular has ways of playing in an online format if you’re hoping to get that party-game feel while self-isolating during the pandemic.

Family Games


As your family gets older, they’ll have more fun with games with a bit more “punch”. Games in this category are playable by most any age level (so even the young ones can participate) but have enough strategy so that the older players have a chance to use strategy to increase their chances of winning.

Super-Skill Pinball: 4-Cade (1-4p, $30, 30 min)
If you ever wondered what pinball would look like as a boardgame, look no further. Super-Skill Pinball is a roll-and-write game, meaning someone rolls a set of dice and then all players use the number(s) rolled to fill in their personal game board. Here, each player has a game board representing a pinball table (the game comes with four different ones.) Players have a ball token that moves around the board, limited by what is rolled on the dice. Just as in “real” pinball, there are bumpers, flippers, and drop-down targets to be had all granting a player additional “stars” which serve as the points for the game. A basic one features everything you would expect including chutes, skill shots, and even multi-ball play. Another table has a little mini-game that can be triggered with the right shots. The last two tables are a bit more involved and feature ways to improve one’s point potential over the course of multiple balls played. Because it captures the spirit of pinball so well, Super-Skill Pinball is easy to grasp and lends itself to even a younger set if needed. Definitely a game to check out if you (or a loved one) is a fan of pinball.

Pandemic: Hot Zone – North America (2-4p, $20, 30 min)
In some shape or form, Pandemic is a perennial feature of the GamerDad Holiday Guide. This year, the stand-out version is Pandemic: Hot Zone – North America. It is a slightly slimmed down version of the original, making it cheaper, the box smaller, faster to play, and less expensive. It still has the same basic cooperative play where players must move around the board to prevent outbreaks while at the same time trying to collect matching sets of disease cards to form a cure. This is a great introduction to the Pandemic franchise as it contains most of the core ideas and mechanisms of the series but in a slightly friendlier way. This doesn’t mean the game isn’t a challenge. On beginner mode a victory is quite achievable, but due to the short timeframe of the game there isn’t enough time to recover from a poor play when playing on the harder levels.

Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-Kar (2-4p, $80, 45-60 min)
Yes, $80 is a pricey game, but the nifty bits and pieces are what make the game stand out. Players move their figurines around a large (almost 1’x3’) 3D island, using cards to dictate how far they move and any special powers they might use. The king piece of the game is a skull-looking funnel at the top of the mountain. Occasionally, players will get to pour marbles into the skull and they will then come crashing down the various paths, potentially knocking over players’ pawns. Of course, some cards let players turn the skull in new directions, letting you avoid the skull’s wrath while setting up bad news for your opponents. Players score points passing through new areas of the board while also trying to collect up to three different snapshot photos of special locations. Once someone collects all the snapshots, it is a race to get back to the chopper, or be left behind and lose a few points.

One final note, most of the games in the Stocking Stuffer category also fit well into the Family Game category, so scroll on down there to see some more family options.


Family Strategy


These are great games for most families – or a group of adults looking for a medium-weight game to play casually around the table to end an evening. These are a notch up in complexity kid’s or party games, but are simple enough for teens or preteens to enjoy.

The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine (2-5 p, $15, 20 min)
Winner of the German Game of the Year, The Crew would be a great game for anyone who loves trick-taking games like Bridge, Spades, Euchre, etc… It is fairly unique in the trick-taking genre because The Crew is a cooperative game, all players win or lose together. Using standard trick-taking rules (one suit is always trup, players must follow suits, etc…) players have to accomplish a series of more and more difficult objectives. At the start of each hand, one or more challenges are revealed, typically dictating a specific card that must be taken in a trick by a specific player. If the hand is a success, the players go on to a more difficult challenge. While all revolve around getting specific cards into the trick won by a specific player, the difficulty increases as players are challenged to distribute more than one specific card in a trick, possibly even dictating which cards must be won first. The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine is simply an amazingly fun game for any fan of trick-taking games, even if they don’t usually play boardgames. It’s many awards and honors are well earned.

Silver (2-4p, $25, 30-60 minutes)
GamerDad here has always been a fan of a good card game, particularly one that works well with a broad audience. Silver mixes set a collection mechanic (like Rummy or Canasta) with hand management and a werewolf style theme. Players begin with five face-down cards. Taking turns, players draw a new card and use its power or use it to replace one or more of their hidden cards. Most cards have a werewolf (point) value and the goal of the game is to have as few as possible. If a player thinks they have the fewest, they call for a vote. Everyone gets one more round to shed their points and then players score their werewolf total. Calling for the vote and having the fewest points gives a player a score of 0, but if they call and are not the fewest, they take a penalty. As one would expect, the “fun” part of the game is the special actions on the cards. Each card has a special action, some used when they are discarded, some when they are turned face-up in one’s play area. The interactions between these abilities and the other players is what makes the game. One round is fairly short, making it easy to pick up the game or put it down again. Silver has been quite popular so there are additional releases, Silver Dagger, Silver Bullet, and Silver Coin. Each version plays the same but adds a small new dimension to the game – realized by new card abilities for each numbered card. The various versions can be played separately or one can even mix and match cards from more than one set. Silver is the most straightforward, while the others add just a bit of a wrinkle resulting in a slightly more complex game but still easily played at a family gaming level.

Scooby-Doo! Betrayal at Mystery Mansion (3-5p, $35, 25-50 min)
For whatever reason, Scooby-Doo! has had a small revival in boardgames of late. Here, the popular asymmetric adventure game, Betrayal at House on the Hill, has been reskinned into a Scooby theme. Players take on the role of one of the main Scooby characters, each with unique values for the four main character stats (speed, might, brains, and courage.) A player’s character wanders around a haunted mansion constructed with tiles drawn from a stack as they move. When new tiles are revealed, events can occur, items can be found, and players may be faced with a challenge (using one of those four attributes…) Eventually, something will trigger The Haunt, the heart of the game. Two storybooks are taken out with the triggering character taking one of the books and the other players using the second book and both sides look up the same numbered Haunt (there are 25 in the game.) The two groups will then read two different perspectives of the new situation… the Scooby-doo characters are informed of some of the information and what they need to “win”, while the triggering player becomes the “Monster” for the rest of the game and has their own victory condition. Note, both groups are unaware of the others’ overall goals. At this point, the players and the “Monster” continue running about the game board (possibly fighting each other, possibly trying to make certain skill checks in specific locations, etc…) until one side or the other satisfies their winning condition to win the game. It is a great rethemeing of a solid game. Occasionally, random chance will make it that a particular Haunt, due to the board setup at the time, is easily to achieve or almost impossible to achieve. Of course, this is a bit of a letdown, but the game itself isn’t too long, so the solution is almost always to just give the game a second go. As mentioned, there are 25 possible Haunts in the base game, so there’s a limit to how many times you can play before you start to replay a previous version, but 25 is still a lot of times to play one game. Each haunt has its own special rules and while there are some similarities across all the Haunts, it is like having a game with 25 different expansions – similar, but slightly different each time. That “new each time” hook is the game’s best feature. While I consider the core gameplay to be simply “OK”, the fun part is the Monster reveal and all the chaos that ensues as players run amok in the mansion trying to win, while unaware of what their opponent is trying to do. I also appreciate the more lighthearted nature of the Scooby-Doo theme. The original game had a darker bent (not all that dark, but some) and this cartoony version means it can be played safely with just about any age. As long as your youngest player isn’t the “Monster” and need to read all that secret text alone, Betrayal at Mystery Mansion works just fine in a family setting

Escape Room Games


In a year of restrictions on meetings and travel, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the growing popularity of “escape room” experiences one can play at home. These are games full of chaining puzzles and riddles along a story theme. The backstories typically set things up just like an escape room (you are here, you need to get through this door, etc…) Most also have diverging puzzles so during the main portion of the game there may be two or three active puzzles at a time, giving more than just one or two people something to do. Three of my favorite escape-rooms-in-a-box are the Unlock! line from SPACE Cowboys, the Exit: The Game series from Kosmos, and Deckscape series from dV Giochi. I’ll mention them here as they play well within the Family Strategy age and temperament group. I’ll point out one of the most recent releases for each line, but all three lines have many releases to choose from and have an associated rating estimating the difficulty of the puzzles.

Exit: The Enchanted Forest (1-6p, $15, 45-120 min)
The Exit titles were the first to market and remain a strong line. The box comes with a deck of cards (some clues, some used as hints), a decoding wheel (used to check if your suspected answer is correct), and some other constructables. Exit is fairly unique as one destroys the game as you play. Players often need to cut up, fold, or otherwise change around bits in the game to solve the puzzles. This allows for some more complex, unique, or interesting puzzles but also means you can’t pass the game on to someone else when you’re done. (Unlock! And Deckscape can both be “reset” and then passed on to someone else to play…)

Star Wars: Unlock! (1-6p, $35, 60-90 min)
Trumping the other series by having one box based around a big-name brand like Star Wars, the Unlock! Series relies on a combination of a deck of cards and an accompanying mobile app that serves as both a timer, and a way to give and/or evaluate clues. Here, players find various clue cards as they play and each clue card displays a number. If a player decides two cards should go together, they take the sum of the two and look up that number to see if they are a match. If they don’t match, players simply continue their quest to find a different pair. One can see that many of the clues will therefore center around numbers (either hidden in photos or deduced from other clues) which are then used to move the story along. One handy hint, the game tells you when you are finished with a card. Be sure to remove it from play so you don’t waste time and energy on cards that are no longer of use. Of note, the more recent Unlock! titles are three shorter escape rooms in one box. The Star Wars box has players smuggling cargo on the rim, returning to base after being lost on snowy Hoth, and infiltrating the rebel scum on Jehda. If Star Wars isn’t your thing, the Heroic Adventures box has a generic videogame game, a Sherlock Holmes one, and an Alice in Wonderland one, all in the same box.

Deckscape: Escape from Alcatraz (1-6p, $15, 60 min)
Going for an even smaller package, the Deckscape series consists entirely of a single deck of cards. The starting layout for the game is to create multiple stacks of cards, each with the same color on the back. As the game progresses, players start to remove cards from each stack and lay them face-up. The stacks help to form a branching structure to the puzzles so that there are usually multiple projects on which to work. My favorite part of Deckscape is that it truly is simply a deck of cards and is thus extremely portable (and would fit in a stocking.) However, this format is slightly less forgiving than the other two I’ve mentioned since a wrong guess here often reveals the solution (giving players a point penalty.) While that also happens in the Exit or Unlock series, they both have mechanisms that can provide a null result without giving away an answer.

Serious Strategy Games


I typically mention a few games for the more serious boardgamer. These have a few more rules and take a bit longer to play. In a year of contrasts I’m featuring one fully cooperative game and two all-out wargames. None are as complex as past years’ serious strategy recommendations, but best played by people willing to put up with a few rules in order to find a game that has substance.

The Castles of Burgundy (1-4p, $50, 70-120 min)
This is not a new game, but it is still an excellent classic, on the “lighter” side of this category, making it a possible entry for a Family Strategy as well. Here, players build on a private board made of a hexagonal grid. The meat of the game is for players to roll dice, and then use the faces shown on the dice to perform actions. The dice dictate where and how a player can fill in their game board. As new areas are filled in, players trigger special powers depending on the color of hexagons filled. While there is some jostling for resources and a race to be the first to score specific goals, most of the game is rather non-confrontational, making it a good choice if players aren’t particularly fond of mechanisms that focus on attacking the other players. The new 20th Anniversary release of Castles of Burgundy (20th anniversary not of the game but the company) combines the base game with 8 additional expansions, one of which has not been previously released.

Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 (2-4p, $80, 45-60 min)
Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 is yet another very pricey game, but in this case you are paying for a long-term gaming experience. Like standard Pandemic, this is a cooperative game where players attempt to move around the game board, trying to prevent bad things from happening in the short-term whilst also trying to forward the long-term goals of the game. Here, players take on the roles of spies during the cold war, taking on missions while trying not to get caught and blow their cover. The Legacy component means that, over time, players significantly change and mold the game into a new experience. Each time players win a game, they get to choose a few small ways in which to permanently change the game for further plays, such as putting stickers on the board or on their own character cards. Meanwhile, the game itself is also changing, revealing new rules, restrictions, and goals – sometimes even in the middle of a game. Thus, you are paying for a long-term experience with the game (between 12 and 24 games, one per month with one chance to redo a month if you fail in the first attempt.) Playing through the original Pandemic Legacy (Season 1) stands as one of the best boardgaming experiences one can have. This new version (Season 0) is a worthy successor to the original. It manages to capture the same level of ongoing story but with a new theme (spies instead of doctors) and new mechanisms to provide a similar, but significantly different experience.

Gloomhaven: The Jaws of the Lion (1-4p, $50, 30-120 min)
Several years ago I had listed Gloomhaven as an excellent game for gamers looking for a deep, ongoing sort of adventure boardgame. However, the cost (well over $100) and time commitment (well over 100 hours) to buy and fully play through the game was steep. Gloomhaven: The Jaws of the Lion is an attempt to scale everything back in order to provide a taste of that provided by Gloomhaven, but without the epic time and cost. The base idea is the same. Players take on the role of explorers, making their way through a series of linked encounters that provide permanent changes to the player’s characters as well as the game’s story arc. The game is heavily combat focused and is based around players choosing two cards from their hand. When their turn occurs then then must choose the top action on one card and the bottom action on the other. (Which is which is decided at the start of that turn.) Players reshuffle their card deck when they run out of cards but cards can also be removed from play. When a player runs out of cards to reshuffle, they sit out the rest of that encounter. The Jaws of the Lion does a great job of easing players into the Gloomhaven system. Each player takes on a different character, with unique abilities (they’re unique from the main game as well) that grow over time. One problem with the original Gloomhaven was the time it takes to set everything up. By using a spiral bound encounter book, players use the book laid flat onto the table as the game map, possibly even turning pages as new areas are explored in an encounter. This simplifies everything significantly and is far friendlier for newer gamers. It maintains all the nifty mechanisms and some of the changing “legacy” aspects of the original, enough for a solid game experience (requiring at least 12 scenarios to complete the branching storyline out of a possible 24.) Players will then have a better idea whether to jump into the full Gloomhaven experience.


Stocking Stuffers


Got a bit of space left in your sock over the fireplace? Here’s a great small game that you might be able to cram into the toe…

Infinity Gauntlet: A Love Letter Game (2-6p, $17, 15 min)
Love Letter, a 16-card minimalist game originally from Japan, has garnered many awards over the years. So much so, the game has been rethemed into several versions. The new Infinity Gauntlet version stands out as it is a game of many (Heroes) vs one (Thanos.) As before, players have a single card in-hand and then draw one more and choose one of the two to play and take the card’s action. Each card has a number as well as a special ability – such as looking at other player’s hands or reordering the deck, etc… The most common action is to compare cards with another player, discarding the card with the lower number. In the original game, forcing a player to discard put them out of the hand. Here, a player remains in the game, but their side loses a life point. When one side loses all their health, their opponent(s) win. Both sides have their own deck of cards from which to draw, and the Thanos player has cards representing the infinity stones that remain on the table when played. Thanos can also win if he manages to collect the complete set of stones. The simple gameplay of the original game pairs well with the popular Marvel theme to make a game that adds some new twists while retaining the original’s charm. I enjoy the camaraderie of the one vs many feature of the game and it is highly portable – Igive it a solid recommendation.

Point Salad (2-6p, $20, 15-30 min)
This lightweight game of collecting sets of cards literally flips the genre upside down. Every card a player collects can count as a vegetable OR it can be used as a scoring rule. There are no default scoring rules. Players collect the scoring rules as they collect other vegetable cards so while you might be trying to get carrots, your neighbor is hoping to grab that available cabbage. Most of the fun of the game is trying to balance between using cards as vegetables and using cards as scoring rules. Gather too many veggies early, and the other players may not let you grab the right scoring cards. However, if you waste too much time getting the right scoring cards, you might not have enough time to get the vegetables to take advantage of your scoring cards. It’s a fun little game that is easily explained since all the scoring rules are right on the cards. I like how players can deny their neighbors the cards they want by taking them sooner, but there is no direct conflict – you can’t outright steal anything another player has already taken. It is easy to see how it’s been on the short list for many different game awards this past year.

If you have even more stockings to fill, there are some greats from the past to check out. The card game No Thanks! ($13) is a great bidding game where you bid NOT to take cards. The cooperative The Mind ($15) has players trying to synchronize with each other in order to wordlessly play everyone’s cards in numerical order. If die rolling is your thing, Qwixx ($12) has players using the same set of die rolls to fill out their scoring gamepad. (Think of it as simultaneous Yahtzee with simple but more interesting scoring.)



If you already have favorite games in your collection, you may be pleasantly surprised to find there are expansions available to breathe new life into old favorites. Here are a few I like that expand some of the meatier games I’ve recommended in the past.

My favorite civilization-building game, Through the Ages, has a new expansion entitled Leaders and Wonders. These cards consist of (surprisingly) new Leader and Wonder cards that replace the ones that come with the game. These special powers add a new spin on things and offer up some new winning strategies to pursue. They can also be mixed and matched with the originals if you prefer. Photosynthesis is an interesting game that has players attempting to collect light by growing trees while the sun orbits around the outside of the board. Tall trees can block the sunlight from smaller adjacent trees. Under the Moonlight is an expansion that offers a couple new options. One adds the moon to the board which rotates opposite the sun while the second gives critters to the players who can then move them around in the forest to gain special rewards. Finally, there are the expansions to Root. Root is a unique game that has four very different sides. Players take on a side that has its own rules, goals, and winning conditions. Amazingly, the different sides are well balanced and the various sides means a player can play the game four times and have a completely different experience each time. The two new releases for Root are The Underworld expansion and The Clockwork expansion. The Underworld expansion has a board with two new maps as well as two new factions to try out. The Clockwork Expansion gives players a sort of playerless AI option with rules to control any of the other factions. The game is best played with 4 players, so the Clockwork expansion provides a way to keep 4 different factions on the table when there’s only 2 or 3 players available.



No matter what toys and presents the holidays bring, be sure to keep time in your schedule for playing with friends and family. While the games here come highly recommended to provide fun for a wide range of players, there are plenty other choices available. Ask your local game store, a boardgaming friend, or check some of our past recommendations.

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