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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

My Favorite Things: Games (non-software edition)

carcassonne
Carcassonne

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.

Castle Panic

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.

[$25. Wizard’s Tower expansion, $22.]

Carcassonne

I first discovered Carcassonne from the $10 iOS version from TheCodingMonkeys, which is still my favorite iOS board-game app. Seriously, it’s beautiful.

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.

[$35. Inns and Cathedrals expansion, $18.]

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.

[$50.]

Forbidden Island

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.

[$18.]

Dominion

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.

[$45.]

Telestrations

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.

[$30.]

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.

If you’ve got a lot of kids in your group, there’s a Junior edition that keeps the words a little easier. And if it’s all adults, well, then maybe you should get Cards Against Humanity instead.

[$31.]

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.

[$12.]

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.

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[Get into the buying, er, holiday spirit by reading our gift guide!]