Tabletop Games for the Holidays
Whether you’re a neophyte or a gaming guru, we’ve got you covered
By Josh Kupecki, Robert M. Reyes, Richard Whittaker, Ashley Moreno, and felix morgan, Fri., Dec. 9, 2016
Seared into my brain is an early holiday memory of a post-Christmas dinner game of Risk that nearly came to fisticuffs and definitely had a ripple effect on our familial psyche, evolving from something that was never spoken of to, eventually, a cherished holiday tale to tell the nieces and nephews. This season, create your own family chaos with some of these game suggestions from our Screens team. Crush the Rebel Alliance and send your uncle into a tizzy, steal treasure from your snarky cousin, or beat your grandma in building a rail route around the country. These games are addictive and offer hours of entertainment for your holiday gathering. And, hey, it beats arguing about politics. – Josh Kupecki
Betrayal at the House on the Hill$49.99, play time: 1 hr.
A priest, two children, a fortune teller, a jock, and an all-American girl walk into a haunted house …
Stop me if you've heard this one before, but if you haven't heard of Betrayal at the House on the Hill, it is a must-have board game that the whole family can enjoy (though the wee ones might find the supernatural elements a bit creepy). You and your ragtag group of friends explore a spooky mansion (random room tiles are placed individually as you explore, creating a unique board every time you play), unearthing weapons, secrets, and evil until – surprise! – you discover you've been betrayed by one of your own (unbeknownst to all players – including the betrayer – until that moment). Inspired by B-movie scenarios (50 in the core set), you get massive replay value and the simple rules make this a must-have regardless of your experience with board games. – Robert M. Reyes
MunchkinBasic set $24.95 (expansions $4.95-24.95), play time: 1-2 hrs.
Rescuing the weak? Liberating kingdoms from demonic possessors? C'mon, the real reason for playing games like Dungeons & Dragons is to kill ridiculous monsters and get all their cool stuff. Austin's own Steve Jackson Games takes the glee of dungeon crawling and adds cartoon loopiness that's perfect for the entire food-addled family during the holiday season. It seems simple: Draw cards, kill monsters, and the most powerful player wins. But considering this may be the only game that actively encourages arguing over the rules, what's in the deck is only half the fun. With expansion packs spoofing everything from H.P. Lovecraft and pirates to Adventure Time and romance (Love Shark Baby, anyone?), there's something to offend everyone. Just grab your Boots of Running Really Fast, your Chain Saw of Bloody Dismemberment, and your MBA in Management, and hope when you kick down that door it's not the Fun Guy From Yuggoth hiding there. – Richard Whittaker
Ticket to RideBasic set: $29.99 (expansions variously priced), play time: 1-2 hrs.
Look, we all love our families, but sometimes bringing everyone together (really together) can be hard. And it's not like 2016 has made that any easier. Not to worry! This year you can all-but-gift family togetherness in an easy-to-wrap box with a copy of Ticket to Ride, a European-style tabletop game from Days of Wonder (Small World, Five Tribes), that has garnered multiple awards (including the 2004 Spiel des Jahres prize, a coveted game-of-the-year award in Germany). The box suggests players 8 years old and up, but it has little text and few rules – meaning slightly younger train enthusiasts could play, too. Although beloved by even hardcore gamers for its versatility, it's fairly simple. The goal is to score points by connecting cities via rail. Every connection scores points, with huge bonuses for completing routes on special destination cards. One other cool thing about it: tons of expansion packs. If it's a hit, you'll have gifts for years. – Ashley Moreno
Pandemic$24.99, play time: 45 min.
Pandemic is the new best classic board game, taking its place on American shelves and reinvigorating game nights everywhere since 2008 (but the 2013 version has extras!). One of the best things about Pandemic is that it's a cooperative, rather than a competitive, game. Several virulent diseases are breaking out all over the world and you must assemble a crack team of specialists to deal with them. And you must work together to do so. For example, one person can be an operations expert and build research stations at sites around the world, making it easier for other players to travel between them. A player who is a scientist needs less cards to solve a disease than other players. Pandemic is a great game for ages 8 and up, especially for kids (or adults!) that are bored of the classics but not quite ready for Settlers of Catan or Dungeons & Dragons. – Felix Morgan
Istanbul$49.99, play time: 1 hr.
Istanbul is a general strategy game in which players act as merchants, managing a team of assistants, with the primary goal of acquiring rubies. First player to five rubies wins. Rüdiger Dorn, who also made Goa – a fairly popular auction/resource management game from 2004, designed it. The rules aren't overly complicated, but some new gamers might still find it a bit too Cones of Dunshire. The gamer on your list will love it. It has plenty of depth, and the board is modular, making the game fun to replay. It came out a couple of years ago and hasn't exactly grown into a household name, which makes it a great find for enthusiasts who likely own other, more popular titles. If you gift it at a holiday gathering, break it open after dinner or after your youngest nieces and nephews go to bed. Serve it with some eggnog and brandy. – A.M.
Star Wars: Rebellion$99.99, play time: 3-4 hrs.
It's a galaxy in a box: the original Star Wars trilogy as a massive tactical board game, with 170 plastic figures, just as many cards, plus dice, counters, and two star maps. Dedicated fans (and we mean dedicated: A game swallows an evening faster than the Sarlacc guzzling down Boba Fett) will delight in sending heroes and villains into epic battles and secret missions. Rebellion's genius is that it remembers this isn't a fair fight. It's technocratic dictatorship vs. plucky underdogs, and so each must take a different path to victory. Palpatine's forces must destroy every last vestige of these insurgents, while the Alliance aims to evade capture, and liberate more planets over to the light side of the Force. It may sound like an unwinnable fight for the rebels, but a lesson for any budding Grand Moff: The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers. – R.W.
T.I.M.E. Stories$49.95, play time: 90 min.
If there's anything we've learned from popular science fiction, it's that once time travel has been achieved, there's going to be problems. Enter the temporal agents of the T.I.M.E. Agency, sent to the past, the future, and – in some cases – an alternate reality in order to stop time crimes from being committed. No easy feat when you're racing against the clock. A starter storyline "Asylum" is contained in the core set, though expansions provide more "cases." It would be a spoiler to discuss specifics about any "case," but what you should know is that the artwork is incredible and the mechanics are simple enough to learn quickly. T.I.M.E. Stories keeps the conversation rolling as your team uncovers clues and strategies for success, providing a long night of escapist fun for anybody looking for an immersive experience based around storytelling and less on conquering. – R.M.R.
Seafall$79.95, play time: 2 hrs.
A successor to Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy, all designed by Rob Daviau, Seafall is a legacy game, which is totally a thing now, and means that the game "remembers" past games. Sort of. You play a new game whenever family or friend bonding time rolls around, but the choices you make in game sessions have irrevocable consequences on future games. It's kind of halfway between a tabletop role-playing situation and a traditional, albeit complex board game. And there are pirates. And treasure. You literally build and expand the game, world, and story each time you play. If you have a tight group of gamer friends and love intricacy, check out this seafaring epic that is breaking board games forever. Seafall is good for adults of all ages who are clever and enjoy complex rules and not losing lots of tiny pieces. – F.M.
Scythe$80, play time: 2 hrs.
Who knew fighting over a war-torn, 1920s alternate-reality Eastern Europe could bring so much joy? Arguably the most hyped game of 2016 (ahem, Seafall), Scythe deserves its place among the pantheon of board game greats, combining strategy, luck, and genuinely funny moments – one playthrough had a player yodeling at a mech to save a cow – to deliver a memorable experience for players looking to take a step (well) beyond The Settlers of Catan. Elements of several memorable board games are crammed into one gorgeous package and – simply put – it all works perfectly. The artwork and miniatures are stunning, the mechanics are familiar but fresh, and the game is immensely enjoyable. With multiple ways to win and never leaving any player too far behind with its constantly evolving gameplay, Scythe keeps the fun coming – and isn't that the most important part of a successful board game? – R.M.R.