December 16, 2014 10:38 AM PT
I live in a house with three other people. My wife and I have been living under the same roof for quite some time, but at some point we welcomed these tiny crying creatures into our house. They keep getting bigger, though. One of them is now 13 and the other one’s 10, and to keep them entertained sometimes we play games on our dining-room table.
If you also live with people—children or otherwise—and enjoy playing games, you might be interested in buying one of these and giving it as a gift. I don’t know, is it still gift-giving season?
Note: I’m including Amazon links here, but I strongly encourage that you consider visiting your local game store, if you’ve got one. Local game stores are an amazing resource, filled with people who will help you pick exactly the right game for the needs of your friends and/or family.
My son being three years younger than my daughter, we have to walk the fine line between games that he won’t play and that she finds boring. When my son was younger, he would also get very upset when he lost any game. (Who likes to lose? Saying “It builds character, son,” has limited effect on a grumpy five-year-old.)
One great solution was to seek out cooperative, rather than competitive games. When I first heard about this concept, I was a little confused—how can a game be fun when it’s not competitive? But in fact, there is competition—it’s just between the players and the relentless mechanics of the game itself.
I realize I’m dating myself here, but Castle Panic actually reminds me a little bit of the classic arcade game Space Invaders. Every turn, monsters appear in the forest surrounding a small castle. Every turn, the existing monsters on the board creep a little bit closer to the castle. They’re relentless.
The point of Castle Panic is for players to work together to kill the monsters before they can destroy the castle. Monsters are wounded or killed by cards drawn by the players, and players cooperate by trading cards back and forth. The game ends when the castle has been destroyed or the final monster has been killed. If the players manage to defeat the monsters, the person who killed the most monsters is declared Master Slayer—but every player can feel like they’ve won. And if the castle gets destroyed, all the players share the loss together.
Once the base game starts to feel a little same-y, the Wizard’s Tower expansion pack adds in a new deck of magic-spell cards and amps up the difficulty of the attacking monsters. We added it a couple of years ago and it’s still a favorite.
But the physical board game Carcassonne is tons of fun for the whole family. Your table is the game board, as each player places square game tiles in turn, slowly constructing an entire city on the tabletop. By the end of the game, there’s a crazy, circuitous city map on your table, and the players have gained points by placing small game tokens shaped like people on cities, roads, monasteries, and fields.
The game plays out a little like putting together a puzzle, and there’s a huge amount of strategy. If you want to play aggressively, you can try to steal points from other players by hijacking areas they control. I’ve seen massive point shifts happen right at the end of the game, as players lay down tiles to connect previously disconnected areas.
There are numerous Carcassonne expansions that add tiles and other items to the main game. We play a lot with Inns and Cathedrals, which adds a double-or-nothing element to some map areas, just ramping up the strategy even further.
Ticket to Ride
Another board game with a fantastic $7 iOS app version, Ticket to Ride is a classic battle to create railway lines that link up various cities in North America. It’s challenging without being difficult for younger kids, though the older you get, the more you understand the strategy. Even at 10, my son still gets a bit frustrated with the strategy angle of this game, but he’s gotten a whole lot better in the last year.
Admission: I love this game because, when my family plays, I almost always win. I should’ve been a rail baron.
Another great cooperative game, Forbidden Island has players work together to capture four sacred treasures on an island before the island sinks. The sinking of the island is essentially the game’s ticking clock, making things more difficult until the players either escape the island or lose the game. (There’s also a $5 iPad version, but I haven’t played it.)
The ticking-clock mechanic also allows players to adjust the level of difficulty of the game. So once it’s easy on the default setting, you just set the clock a little bit later and things get that much harder. It’s a fun yet fiendishly difficult game, and it’s always enjoyable for the family to play together rather than against each other. If you’re a parent who has struggled to find games that keep your kids engaged, a cooperative game like Forbidden Island is worth a shot.
Dominion is a “tactical card game” in which players build up their deck by purchasing new cards, which in turn provide them the resources to purchase even more cards. There are many different strategies you can use to increase your income, all toward the goal of grabbing as many victory-point cards as possible before the game ends.
This is a fast, fun game, and my favorite part of it is that it comes with its own expansions. The Dominion box contains far more card types than you’d actually ever use in one game. Before each game, you can choose which card types to play with—and the choices you make can dramatically change the strategy in the game. There are also a bunch of expansion sets outside the main game, but honestly, we’ve had the main game for a year and feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface.
Telestrations is the game that we play the most when we have company. Though it owes a lot to Pictionary, in that it’s a game where you have to draw things (in a dry-erase workbook). The twist is that the person to your right has to try and interpret what you drew, and then the person to their right has to draw something based on that interpretation. It’s the old-fashioned game of telephone, in picture form.
The huge laughs come when everyone shows the progression of their workbook from beginning to end. Misunderstandings and terribly confusing drawings abound. And when kids are involved, the strangeness multiplies. It’s a lot of fun.
Apples to Apples
In Apples to Apples, one person plays a card containing a word, and everyone else has to pick the card from their hand that best matches that word. Then the first player chooses which card was best. It’s pretty simple, but so many of the answers are ridiculous that the game ends up generating lots of laughs. This is a great game for bigger groups.
Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set
I had never actually played a game of Dungeons and Dragons until last year. But it turns out that playing D&D with friends is a blast. This year D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast came out with the fifth edition of the game, along with an excellent boxed starter set for beginners.
The boxed set contains pre-rolled characters and a basic adventure. I’ve been DM’ing the adventure with my family—the first D&D experience for everyone else, and my first DM experience—and we’ve all had a great time. If you haven’t played a roleplaying game before, or haven’t played since you were a teenager, this is the right way to jump in.
Even more ideas
I have friends who are crazy game players. I got a bunch of them together earlier this year and we did an episode of The Incomparable entirely about board games. I recommend you listen to the episode, or even just glance at the show notes, if you want to get even more ideas about great games.
[Get into the buying, er, holiday spirit by reading our gift guide!]
December 15, 2014 2:52 PM PT
[Philip Michaels worked at Macworld for more than a decade, and now is available for your freelance writing and editing needs.]
Really, I blame a lot of this on iTunes.
It’s hard to remember this, more than a decade after Steve Jobs cajoled and arm-twisted the music industry into selling electronic versions of songs for 99 cents, but in the Before Times, when one wanted music, one bought The Whole Damn Album. (If one did not want to feel like donning a ski mask and a switchblade as one downloaded songs illegally, of course.) So when you strolled the aisles of a store during the holiday season and came face to face with an entire array of Christmas CDs, you had to ask yourself this question: Do I really want to buy this entire Dean Martin CD of Christmas songs when only one, maybe two of the tracks will be any damn good? And thus was snuffed out another impulse buy.
iTunes knows no such mercy. You want to hear Dean-o crooning out “Silver Bells?” Be our guest, friend… and why don’t you download “It’s a Marshmallow World at Christmas” while you’re at it? You want John Denver twanging out Christmas songs? (With or without Muppets?) Kenny Chesney? Kenny G? Kenny from South Park? They are all there, adding their particular takes on holiday standards, and they can be yours with just the click of a button.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that the iTunes Store coupled with the impulse control of a magpie has caused my library of holiday tunes to swell like an overstuffed stocking in recent years. And that’s not necessarily because the songs I bought and paid for are all outstanding — far from it. Many are quite terrible, as I expounded on at length in an episode of a podcast that inexplicably keeps having me on and in an article for a website that stopped employing me. I guess when it’s 99 cents to $1.29, the prospect of downloading John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John dueting on a creepy-even-for-this-song version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for a good chuckle doesn’t seem so off-putting. Until you listen to the song, of course, and realize that you own it forever.
But we’re not here today to talk about regret. Jason asked me if I could write an article about good Christmas songs — songs that I actually like and would play around others without reservation during the holidays. This is probably because Jason is a relentlessly positive person, which is an absolutely off-putting trait if I’m being honest, though I suspect it’s also because he bet somebody that I couldn’t come up with a couple hundred words worth of niceness.
Well, I’ll take that bet.
December 14, 2014 12:00 PM PT
This week on my pop-culture podcast The Incomparable, we talk about the excellent detective series “The Last Policeman,” by Ben Winters. It’s an almost noirish crime story set right before the world is going to be destroyed by an asteroid. My guests are Lisa Schmeiser, Erika Ensign, and David J. Loehr.
This week The Incomparable is sponsored by:
- TextExpander touch 3 — The new version’s custom keyboard works with iOS 8 to auto-expand what you type in every app, including Apple’s.
December 12, 2014 1:04 PM PT
I have an iPhone and an iPad. Do you have an iPhone and/or an iPad? Did you know that you can add small programs, or “apps,” to it? Here are some of these so-called “apps” that I enjoy.
Marco Arment is an obscure developer, podcaster, and blogger who wrote an app that lets you play back your podcasts. While Apple offers one of its own, cleverly called Podcasts, Overcast is a whole lot better. The Smart Speed feature reduces dead air almost imperceptibly, saving time. It sounds better at speeds greater than 1x than any other podcast app I’ve tried. And the Voice Boost feature makes podcasts easier to hear when you’re in a loud environment, like a car. Which is where a whole lot of podcasts are consumed.
Much has been written about Overcast, but it’s the podcast app I’ve stuck with.
[Free, with $5 in-app purchase for all the extra features.]
Grocery IQ is the app my wife and I have settled on for our shared shopping list. If one of us finished something in the pantry or fridge, we’ve now trained ourselves to immediately open our iPhones up and add it to the shopping list in Grocery IQ. (The app allows multiple accounts to share lists, which was a prerequisite when we were looking for a shopping-list app.) There’s even a barcode scanner that allows me to skip inputting the item’s name half the time, which is nice. And tapping items as purchased as you’re going through the aisles at the supermarket is actually kind of enjoyable.
I have to admit, Grocery IQ is far from perfect. It’s made by Coupons.com, so there’s a coupon-clipping element that’s a bit junky, though I generally just try to ignore it. I’m ready to replace Grocery IQ for something better, but for more than a year I’ve failed to find anything that matches its lightweight, easy approach to shopping lists. Inelegantly useful sometimes wins out, and that’s what has happened in this case. If your family’s been looking for a purpose-built app to share a group shopping list, give Grocery IQ a try.
I raved about Fantastical for the Mac, but Fantastical is also my calendar app of choice on the iPhone. I prefer its flexible interface, which I generally keep in a list view with a small monthly calendar at the top, to the design of the stock Calendar app.
I was less excited by the iPad version of Fantastical, and I still don’t love it like I do the iPhone version. But in the upgrade to iOS 8, I’ve found the iPad Calendar app to be unreliable. It quits an awful lot when I’m trying to edit calendar entries. Fantastical for iPad doesn’t, and though I don’t find most of the iPad app’s view options to be particularly useful, the design is flexible enough to allow me to swipe them away, leaving me with the basic week view that I want on my iPad.
Me switching away from Apple’s stock apps is getting to be a trend. First I started using Fantastical on my iPhone, and then I switched from Mail to Mailbox. I love Mailbox’s easy swipe gestures that let me archive, delete, or file messages, or—best yet—set them to boomerang back into my inbox after a predetermined amount of time. This approach helps me manage my inbox better, and since I use my inbox as my email to-do list, that’s a good thing. Mailbox only works with Gmail or iCloud, but my personal mail is hosted on Google Apps, so I qualify.
I wrote about Nuzzel back in October, and I’m still using it regularly. Nuzzel is an attractive, easy-to-use app that scans through my own personal Twitter and Facebook streams to find interesting news. There’s also a friend-of-a-friend feature that taps a broader network than my own, but still in the vicinity of the stuff I’m interested in. I do wish Nuzzel would support Twitter lists, though. I’ve got a few really good ones that would be perfect fodder for Nuzzel.
I’ve come to find Nuzzel to be invaluable, and I prefer using it to using traditional RSS newsreaders. Does that make me a bad person?
David Smith’s Pedometer++ is my pedometer app of choice. I’ve got an iPhone 6 (and used to have a 5S), both phones with the onboard mobile coprocessor that turns your iPhone into a pedometer at all times. Pedometer++ displays that data, which on the iPhone 6 includes an estimate of flights of stairs you’ve climbed. (Apparently the hill I walk up a few times a week equates to 18 stories. Who knew?) I like Pedometer++’s simple, brightly colored layout. If you’ve got an iPhone 5s or iPhone 6, you’re already carrying around a pedometer every day. Why not use it as a motivator to walk more?
MLB At Bat
Major League Baseball’s iOS app has been among the best apps on iOS since close to the very beginning. I use this app to listen and watch games (combined with one of the league’s premium streaming services), read news and game recaps, and consult box scores, standings, and stats. The season’s over now, and so MLB At Bat has faded away from the front page of my home screen, but it’ll be back there as soon as pitchers and catchers report.
[Free, premium features $3.]
The app I use the most on iOS is Twitterrific. On iPhone it’s okay, but on iPad is where I love it. It works the way I work with Twitter. I love the display options, including numerous different font choices, its dark-at-night and light-at-day themes, and the general look of the app.
I was never a huge Tweetbot fan, but I always understood its appeal on the iPhone. On the iPad, though, Twitterrific has always been my favorite client, and it remains so. I realize this is not a widely held opinion—the fans of Tweetbot are legion, and most everyone else just gives up and uses the official Twitter app.
I’ve given up and use the official Twitter app on the Mac now, but on the iPad it just don’t work with the ways I use Twitter, especially since I’m constantly consulting saved searches and lists. On iPad in landscape orientation, Twitterrific’s sidebar gives me access to all of those searches and lists with one tap.
Unfortunately, all third-party Twitter clients are on the clock. Eventually the number of features in the official apps will so overshadow the third-party apps that we’ll all have no choice but to switch. But I’m not willing to give up Twitterrific on my iPad just yet.
[Free, premium features $3.]
[Get into the buying, er, holiday spirit by reading our gift guide!]
December 11, 2014 1:04 PM PT
I skipped out on the iPhone 5s, so the iPhone 6 is the first time I’ve had Touch ID—honestly, you haven’t lived until you’ve given your phone the finger. So to speak.
The other night, a friend commented that he keeps trying to unlock his original iPad Air with his fingerprint, so accustomed has he become to his iPhone 6 (yes, it’s the first worldiest of first world problems), but that got me thinking about someplace else Touch ID might come in useful: the Mac.
Biometric security—and fingerprint readers in particular—are nothing new on PCs. Plenty of laptops have a built-in scanner, but they’re often finicky, and software support for them is generally halfhearted at best. Like some of my past suggestions, all of that adds up to something that fits right into one of Apple’s sweet spots.