Board games are a traditional part of Christmas with the family. Here are some recommendations for games to try this Christmas. I know this is rather late for this Christmas, but as the saying goes, A board game is for life, not just for Christmas!
1. Wits and Wagers
Forget Trivial Pursuit, Wits and Wagers is my go to trivia game. Where most trivia games rely only on the knowledge of players, Wits and Wagers gets around this by using questions that all have numerical answers and that it is unlikely for anybody to get exactly correct.
Everybody answers each question and then bets on who they think came closest to being right without going over the actual answer. There is a small bonus for giving the best answer, but even greater rewards can be gained by working out which player came closest.
This makes Wits and Wagers much more inclusive and fun than the standard trivia game, all players are involved in every question, no more long stretches waiting while the know it all in the family streaks to victory. It is also that rare beast, a game my Dad actually enjoys!
Codenames is an excellent modern party game for 4+ players that is a twist on the older family game Password. It was the Winner of the Spiel des Jahres in 2016, arguably the biggest award in the board gaming world.
Players split into two teams red and blue, and each team elects a spymaster. The two spymasters sit together on one side of the table and their team mates sit together on the other side. Between them is a grid of 25 cards, each of which has a single word written on it. The spymasters alone can see a map card identifying some words as blue agents, some as red agents, and one as an assassin.
The spymasters take turns giving clues to their team mates, trying to get them to identify the agents of their team’s colour. A clue consists of a single word or name and a number. The key to success is to find a clue that their team will link to multiple cards of their colour without incorrectly guessing any other cards, especially the assassin, if anybody guesses that card the team loses immediately. The first team to correctly identify all of their own agents wins.
Scrabble is a favourite in many families, but for me it can easily drag as players wait for the active player to shuffle their letters about. Bananagrams solves this by having all players work on their own grids of words simultaneously.
Each player begins with a random selection of letter tiles, with the rest face down in the centre of the table. As fast as possible they all try to form their letters into a crossword style grid. At any point they may return a troublesome letter to the centre, the catch being that they must then immediately take three more letters from the centre. Any time a player completes a grid using all their letters they shout “Peel” and all players must immediately take one new letter from the centre to add to their grid, sometimes meaning that substantial rearrangement is needed. Play continues until there are less letters in the centre than there are players, the first player to then complete their grid is the winner.
Obviously there is less serious strategy in Bananagrams than Scrabble, but for sheer frantic fun it wins every time!
Another game with some similarities to Scrabble is Qwirkle. Winner of the Spiel des Jahres in 2011, Qwirkle takes the basic structure of Scrabble, but dispenses with the letters and the fixed board. Instead of letters the chunky wooden tiles feature sets of six symbols in six different colours.
Each player is given a hand of six tiles and players take turns adding them to the centre of the table to form a grid. A player may play one or more tiles creating or adding to a line in the grid. Players score points for the final length of any lines that their tiles create or are added to, with a bonus for any lines that reach the maximum six tile length (a Qwirkle). The fundamental rule is that each connected line of tiles (row or column) may only contain either one type of symbol in different colours, or one colour with different symbols, and no two identical tiles may ever be in the same line.
I’ve found that Qwirkle is fun and accessible for even younger members of the family, relying as it does on colour and shape recognition, rather that awarding players for vocabulary knowledge.
Timeline is a series of games that would I guess come under the trivia banner. Each tin is themed to a specific category and comes with a deck of cards depicting events, inventions, etc., the decks are all compatible with each other and can be mixed freely. Every card is double sided and only shows the actual date of the event on the back of the card.
Each player is dealt six face up cards to the table in front of them (with the dates hidden). One card is dealt to the centre of the table and flipped so that everyone can see the date on it. Players take turns trying to add one of their cards to the timeline, at either end or between two other cards. They state where they think it should go and then flip the card and see if the date fits in chronological order. If correct they add the card to the timeline, date showing. If incorrect they discard the card and draw another from the deck. The aim of the game is to be the first to have correctly placed all of their cards within the timeline.
There is a board game version of Timeline, called Timeline Challenge, which is supposed to be very good, expanding the gameplay with more ways to play your cards. But for some reason it has never been available in the UK so I’ve not had the chance to try it. It comes with it’s own set of cards and it is possible to add in other sets if you have them to increase the variety and replayability.
Pandemic is an ideal solution for the family who dislikes the competitive nature of board games. It is probably the most popular of the modern cooperative genre of board games which requires players to work together against the game, rather than competing with each other for individual victory.
In Pandemic players take on the roles of different specialists travelling the world to different cities, attempting to treat four different viruses and ultimately to cure them before time runs out. Each role is able to do something better than the others and it is only by coordinating and working together that victory may be achieved.
7. Camel Up
Camel Up is a light hearted game of camel racing, with players betting on the success or failure of the different camels as they race around the track. It was winner of the Spiel des Jahres in 2014.
Gameplay takes place in rounds and each camel will get to move once during the round with coloured dice matching the camels coming out one at a time at random. During a round players can choose to bet on the leader of the round or the final victor/loser. The earlier a correct bet is made, the better the reward, but there are penalties for getting it wrong, so timing your bets is crucial for success. Players can also choose to place obstacles or aids on the track in front of the camels to help or hinder their movement, but you can never be sure that the right camel will land on them.
The wooden camel pieces are stackable, so as a camel arrives on a space with another it sits on top of the original one. If a camel with others on top has it’s turn to move then it will carry the others along, giving them a free boost in the race. This adds a nice amount of unpredictability to the results, increasing the fun of the betting.
8. Sheriff of Nottingham
Sheriff of Nottingham is a game that revolves around bluffing. Players take turns to be the Sheriff and all the other players are merchants who are trying to get the greatest value of goods possible past the Sheriff. Goods cards are of two types, legal goods of apples, bread, cheese, and chickens, and also contraband consisting of high value goods like mead, jewels or weapons.
Players will have a hand of cards and must put one to five of them in a pouch and seal it, then hand it to the Sheriff, declaring the contents as they do so. The problem is that a declaration can only be a number of one type of legal good, 3 apples for example. The Sheriff then has to decide if they believe the players, if they do then they hand the pouch back unopened and the player gets to add all the cards inside to their player mat, if not then they will open the pouch and check the contents. If the player was telling the truth then the Sheriff must give them all their cards and pay them money for the mistake. If the pouch contains something other than what was declared then any contraband is discarded and the player has to pay the Sheriff a penalty for trying to smuggle those cards past him.
This is an excellent bluffing game, it is possible to win both by lying outrageously and getting high value contraband past the sheriff, and also by being scrupulously honest and declaring the truth (especially when the Sheriff is untrusting).
9. Ticket to Ride
Ticket to Ride is a modern classic. Since winning the Spiel des Jahres in 2004 it has spawned a large variety of variants and expansions. It’s success is in large part down to the simplicity of gameplay. The game is played on a large map, of America in the original game. Cities are marked on the map with routes between them in various colours and lengths. The aim of the game is to lay your train pieces down to claim routes, score points, and hopefully complete longer journeys shown on destination cards for bonus points.
Players take turns drawing train cards of different colours or playing those cards in sets to claim routes on the map with their train pieces. At the start of the game they are dealt destination cards, each showing two cities that need to be connected to score bonus points at game end. This gives players some direction as to where they would like to claim to achieve these objectives. Play continues until one player is very low on train pieces, then everyone has one more turn before the game ends. At the end of the game everyone reveals their destination cards and scores points for those achieved and loses points for any they failed to achieve. There is also a bonus for whichever player achieved the longest continuous run of trains on the board.
10. Flamme Rouge
Flamme Rouge is a cycling themed board game with players competing in the race to the finish line to win the race. Each player controls two cyclists, a rouleur and a sprinter, each with their own deck of cards. The cards show numbers representing movement, with the rouleur having a deck of middling cards and the sprinter having more extreme high and low numbers.
The game comes with a modular track that can be configured in a large variety of ways and each piece is double sided, adding to the possibilities. The rules include many preset configurations to get you started. Some pieces simulate hills that restrict movement possibilities adding to the strategic options.
A game round consists of each player drawing a hand of four cards for each of their cyclists and picking a card to play for each. Once everyone has done this the cards are revealed and the cyclists move one at a time, starting with those closest to the front. Once this is done there is a penalty for any cyclist at the front of a pack, so it is generally advantageous to try and end up close to, but not quite at, the front. Used cards are discarded and those not used are placed on the bottom of the decks to be shuffled back in later.
The rules are straightforward and because so much depends on what cards are played by other players, the results are never a certainty, adding to the fun.