I know, so many of you were scarred as children, forced to play boring classics such as Monopoly and Risk. Why sit down and engage in something as archaic and boring as a board game when you could spend that time playing Call of Duty or Candy Crush Saga? If you're asking that question, then you likely missed the Settlers of Catan craze, and even more recent favorites such as Ticket to Ride, Agricola, and Bohnanza. In the past five years, board games have been making a comeback in a big way, and people are now making board games that are clever, intellectually stimulating, gorgeous, and fun. And these games can be the best way to bring the family together during the holiday season. When you're all cramped into one house with nothing to do but bicker, you might as well bicker over the rules, instead of deep-seated childhood disagreements.
To ensure that my list of board games would be expertly informed, I teamed up with Chris Ruggiero, one of the cofounders of the analog game store Endgame (921 Washington St., Oakland). Together, we narrowed down a list of recommendations tailored for groups that rarely get together to play, yet still enjoy a bit of a challenge. And to veer away from titles that you might already own, we focused on games released in the last few years. For your purchasing convenience, you can also find all of these games at Endgame (EndgameOakland.com), or other tabletop game stores in the area.
Sails of Glory
If you are into miniatures (and who doesn't enjoy tiny things?), then Sails of Glory will offer you a lot of enjoyment. Inspired by the best-selling Wings of Glory plane game, the acclaimed 2013 release recreates naval combat in the Napoleonic age with miniature ships that each possess different movement capabilities. (If you are a family that watches the History Channel together, this is your game). Every round, each player moves their vessel around the board in accordance with their hand of cards and the wind at sea, then everyone gets a chance to fire. It comes with four pre-made ship models and eight DIY kits. Like many Kickstarted games, the production is slightly lagging, but look out for it in stores come December. The full game takes approximately 45 minutes and is best played with two to four people.
Pandemic: The Cure
A follow-up to the super-popular 2007 medical video game Pandemic, this dice-based version offers a more lightweight experience. Teams of players cooperate to save the world from four humanity-threatening diseases by simultaneously working to keep outbreaks under control and research cures. Each player possesses a role with specific talents and abilities that they must utilize if they don't want to let their teammates down. Challenge your family's ability to work together. One game takes about thirty minutes and is best played with four people, but can accommodate more or less.
Hanabi is a simple card cooperation game, good for straightforward but engaging gameplay. The title means "fireworks" in Japanese, and each card features a drawing of five firework explosions. The goal of the game is to put on a successful fireworks show by lining up the cards in the correct order, but the tricky part is that each person holds their hand so that it's only visible to the other players. Players thus have to work together by providing cryptic hints revealing which cards their teammates are holding. Good for the family that likes games in which the biggest challenge is communication — just like real life! Best with four players. Playtime is about 25 minutes.
King of New York
Be it a giant lizard or a giant ape, the image of a massive monster tearing down a metropolitan city never gets old. That's partially why King of New York acts as a welcome follow-up to the popular King of Tokyo. Coming from beloved game designer Richard Garfield, King of New York holds on to the core objectives and mechanisms of its predecessor, but adds more elaborate options for gameplay. The objective is to be the first monster to take over the city, or be the last monster alive — and each player gets a standing cardboard cutout of their monster of choice. On his or her turn, each player rolls six different dice, then makes a move to attempt to take over. Players can focus on getting victory points, aim to become a "star" of the city by garnering fame, or recklessly destroy buildings for bonuses. Best with four players. Playtime is approximately forty minutes.
First off, this game is irresistibly adorable. So, if you have family members who are really averse to playing with you, Sushi Go! is promising bait. It's also alluring to non-believers because each game only lasts about fifteen minutes. The premise puts the players at a carousel sushi restaurant with the challenge of putting together the best meal of sushi, such as a good selection of rolls or a full set of sashimi. Each card has a cute cartoon of the various menu items, and players have to grab and trade them as they roll by. The gameplay is similar to the drafting process at the beginning of more involved card games, except condensed and made family-friendly. But just because it's cute, fast, and food-themed doesn't mean there isn't quick strategy involved. And don't expect to play for just one round, either. Best with about four players.
Forbidden Desert is yet another sequel — this time to Forbidden Island. But unlike movie sequels, game sequels are usually just better versions of the same playing experience. Forbidden Desert even defies that expectation though, by taking the main mechanics of the game and turning them into a totally new gameplay experience. In this rendition, players are dropped into a Dune-like desert fantasy, in which they have to uncover a legendary flying machine that's buried in the ruins of an ancient city. As precious resources consistently dwindle, players must cooperate to ensure that they are using everything wisely. With a number of pieces (including a small ship with wings!), and about a 45-minute playtime, this game is a bit more involved. It's suited for the fantasy-loving family that watches Lord of the Rings together every Christmas, and wants to sit down afterward and get lost in a game. Best with four players.
Terror in Meeple City
Terror in Meeple City (formerly known as Rampage) is another monster wreckage game. Your goal is to wreak havoc, ruining streets and buildings, and eating "meeple" (little, wooden people, of course) as you go. The game board is a map of the city topped with actual miniature buildings made from layers of floor tiles held up by "meeple" acting as pillars. Each player gets a wooden Godzilla-like creature to control, and must decide during each turn whether to move, breathe, or demolish or toss a vehicle. (Monsters live pretty straightforward lives.) The more "meeple" you eat, the more points you get, but only if they are the correct character type. It's a relatively simple, good-time game with an exciting board setup. Good for the family that enjoys chomping on innocent humans. Play is around 45 minutes, and best with four people.