Under the Radar’s 2020 Holiday Gift Guide Part 3: Tabletop & Board Games | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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[Banner image features cards from the Postage Paid playing card deck by King's Wild Project]

Under the Radar’s 2020 Holiday Gift Guide Part 3: Tabletop & Board Games

You’ll Love What These Games Bring to the Table

Dec 03, 2020 By Austin Trunick and Mark Redfern
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Let’s be frank: this wasn’t exactly a banner year for board gaming. We don’t mean that there weren't great new games released – as evidenced by our many recommendations below – but a global pandemic has certainly thrown a wrench in our regular board gaming sessions. (It’s hard to get together with friends when, well, it’s not entirely safe to gather outside your household.) Still, we’ve gotten by in other ways, whether that’s been playing with family members, getting in roleplaying sessions over video conference programs, or joining a web-based board gaming site like Board Game Arena. Hopefully conditions will improve next year, and we’ll eventually be able to get back to playing more games in person. The list below will help make sure the game in your life has something new to play when that day comes.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be unveiling the rest of our 2020 Holiday Gift Guide. In case you missed them, we already debuted our video game and drinker’s gift guides. While you’re thinking about gifts, please consider a subscription to Under the Radar for the indie music-lover you know. 

The King’s Dilemma (Horrible Guild)

RRP: $80

Ahhhh, The King’s Dilemma: the recipient of one of this year’s coveted Kennerspiel nominations, and easily Under the Radar’s most anticipated game of 2020. Of course, 2020 did not go the way anyone planned. Last February, we received our review copy of The King’s Dilemma and eagerly prepared to play through the full campaign over multiple sessions. Then we were hit with a pandemic and, well, our game of The King’s Dilemma had to be put on indefinite hold. (Our group includes one medical professional who works with elderly patients, a high school teacher, and an engineer who spends his days crawling through cramped quarters with co-workers -- we’re a potentially catastrophic game group when it comes to any pandemic that’s not Pandemic: Legacy.) And, so, The King’s Dilemma has sat in my office, taunting me every passing day—and it’s maden even worse because what we did play was so, so good. An in-depth review will be coming in our PLAYlist column when it’s possible for us to gather again. Until then, I’ll go on the record and say here that you don’t need to wait for that to find out whether the game’s for you: The King’s Dilemma lives up to its hype.

This is a legacy-style game, meaning it’s intended to be played from beginning to end with (ideally) the same group, as your choices will be altering the course of your gameplay (not to mention, the game’s components), and so that you can all discover the game’s secrets and surprises together. Each player takes on the role of a House in the medieval kingdom of Ankist. In each round of gameplay you’ll draw a dilemma card from the deck, which represents an issue that’s befallen the kingdom. This is when the real meat of the game begins, as players discuss, bargain, argue, scheme—or, some combination of all of the above—over how the dilemma will be resolved, with each choice altering the path of the game’s story. It’s not always a case of working together for what’s best for the kingdom, either, as each House will have secret goals they’ll be working towards, and ulterior motives for their choices. This constant power struggle will stretch over at least fifteen games of The King’s Dilemma, with a storyline that can branch off in an unbelievable number of directions – the amount of sealed envelopes filling this box is staggering. This game conveys a sense of history like few others, and we foresee the scale feeling downright epic by the time we get deeper into our prematurely-cut-short campaign.

The King’s Dilemma will allow you to play out your own Game of Thrones-like saga, and will probably take you as long to get through as it would to marathon a few seasons of the show. Because of how this year has gone, our most anticipated board game of 2020 winds up our most anticipated board game of 2021, as well. We can’t wait to dive back in, and encourage you to give it a shot if it sounds even the least bit up your alley. (Learn more here.)

Forgotten Waters (Plaid Hat Games)

RRP: $60

Move over, Tales of the Arabian Nights. Forgotten Waters has stolen your crown as the most entertaining storytelling game we’ve played. Built around an app-based version of the crossroads system that drove the zombie classic Dead of Winter, this new game has players hitting the high seas in thematic (and comedic) pirate adventures. Where Dead of Winter had players reading aloud to one another from a thick deck of cards, the narrative is moved to a web-based app with full (and outstanding) voice acting, and top-notch writing that had our group howling. Forgotten Waters features hands-down the funniest writing we’ve ever run into in a board game. (If you’re a PC gamer of a certain age, Forgotten Waters brought back wonderful memories of playing Monkey Island on an old DOS machine.)

The game plays from three to seven players and is recommended for ages 14 and up. (We had a blast in our test run with five players, but would welcome more in a future campaign; our table included one eleven-year-old, and that was fine if you'll allow them a little PG-13 humor.) The components include a colorful spiral-bound book and standees, which comprise most of the gameplay, along with ten-sided dice and a large assortment of bookkeeping tracks, which the game wisely spreads among the players by giving them responsibilities on the ship. (The gunner minds the cannons, the first mate tracks the crew numbers, etc.) Maybe the most clever component are the character sheets, which use a Mad Libs-style system to give each player their back story. Outside of those, most of the gameplay will revolve around the web app, which also supplies background noise – crashing waves, seagulls, perhaps the din of battle – to aid immersion.

The game is cooperative, although there’s a competitive element in seeing who progresses farthest on their personal story track. You’ll want to do so either way – each time you progress a certain number of points, you’ll unlock the next chapter of your pirate’s story, which is always a good laugh. You’ll also get a special ending, depending on how far you got on this track. (The bad endings are just as entertaining as the “good” one, so no big worries either way.) Forgotten Waters is a wild time, and one that left everyone eager to play their next session – it earns our highest recommendation, and we're crossing our fingers that it’s a big enough hit for Plaid Hat to release more of it. (Learn more here.)  

Luxury Playing Cards from King’s Wild Project

RRP: $15 and up

The standard, 52-card deck of playing cards is an ubiquitous part of our culture: they’re not just for playing card games, but associated with everything from gambling, to magic tricks, to building teetering towers. It’s estimated that there are more than one thousand games out there that can be played with a 52-card deck (and likely many times more than that, once you factor variants). In the United States, most of us grew up playing one regional favorite or another, whether it’s something we learned from our families or schoolmates. We’d venture a guess that a large percentage of the population loosely know the rules to at least half a dozen different card games, whether we consider ourselves “gamers” or not.

The point is, decks of playing cards are universal. Everyone has a favorite game, meaning that a gift of one of King’s Wild Project’s decks of deluxe playing cards is something almost anyone should be able to appreciate – from a spouse or loved one, to a hard-to-buy-for family member, to a coworker, to that person in your game group who already has every game he could possibly want on his shelves. No matter whether they play poker, hearts, euchre, bridge, rummy, solitaire, speed, or Egyptian Ratscrew, these gorgeous decks will elevate whatever game fits their particular fancy.

While decks of King’s Wild Project playing cards can certainly be treated as collector’s items, they’re also incredibly practical pieces of art. There are more expensive and limited runs, but their standard decks are generally around $15, and are mini-masterworks of design. No words we can write will be as effective as taking a look through images of their available decks: each is thoroughly thought-out with a keen attention to detail, with cool themes that can be picked according to your gift recipient’s other interests. (So, seriously – promise us you’ll click each one of these.) Medieval history buff? Try the new Arthurian deck, with illustrations that look like something out of an old, illuminated manuscript. Love the ‘80s? We’d recommend their VHS 1982 set, with a slick, holographic sensibility that looks like something David Hasselhoff would have kept in KITT’s glove compartment to help kill time between adventures. Buying for someone who works in, say, banking or finance? The Federal 52 deck looks like old money. A long-distance friend you miss dearly? Drop a Postage Paid deck in the mail for them, and we guarantee you it’ll be one of the most-loved “postcards” they’ve ever received. (These are the lovely cards featured in our banner image.)

If a deck of playing cards seems like too small a gift for the person you’re buying it for, here’s our idea: make it the centerpiece of a gift box or basket. Your old poker buddy? Give them the Maduro deck alongside a couple cigars and a fifth of whiskey for something both thoughtful and flashy. The possibilities are endless. Besides, if you really can’t decide – a playing card subscription might also be, as they say, “in the cards.” (Learn more here.)

A War of Whispers (Starling Games)

RRP: $60

A War of Whispers may look like a dudes-on-a-map, Risk-style war game, but it’s anything but. Two to four players will watch as five armies battle for control over a fantasy continent, frequently stepping in to nudge the tides of war one way or another, send reinforcements, or consolidate forces. You see, you don’t actually control any single one of those armies in A War of Whispers yourself, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t completely invested in their conflicts.

When A War of Whispers starts, you’ll be dealt five tokens – each representing one of the five armies – in a random order, and in secret. These will decide which colors you’ll favor, and which you’d prefer to see eliminated from the map. The best part is that no one will know where an opponent’s rooting interest lies; it’s entirely possible you could be aligned with the player across the table, or may be at total odds. There are three points in the game where, if you see you’re backing a losing horse, you can swap two of your allegiances – at the cost of revealing them to your opponents.

The gameplay itself boils down to worker placement, as you drop two of your workers on spaces around the edge of the (very cool) circular board. The actions occur in a clockwise fashion around the outside, which is an extremely clever way of delineating action order. In future turns, you pick up one of your workers but leave another in place at the start of the turn – meaning, you’ll get those actions again and again as the board slowly fills up and available actions dwindle. Late in games, you could find yourself controlling the armies that your opponent wants to win, sending them into losing battles to tank your opponent’s score. A War of Whispers can very quickly turn cutthroat!

With an unorthodox design, tons of replay value, and a playtime so tight it can be played in roughly an hour, A War of Whispers is a sure-fire winner for any tabletop strategist in your life. (Learn more here.)

Roleplaying Games

MÖRK BORG Artpunk RPG (Free League)

RRP: $33

Translating from Swedish to English as “Dark Castle,” MÖRK BORG is metal as all get-out. As much an art project as it is a roleplaying book, the bleak, disturbing, crumbling world of MÖRK BORG is hinted at with, hands-down, the wildest design work we’ve ever seen in an RPG corebook. It’s a world that literally dies as you play your campaign, full of cursed humans with decaying features, creepy dolls, bloody skeletons, necromancers, and adventurers who beat on them all using a dead man’s femur as their basic weaponry. The flavorful, imagery-conjuring texts and illustrations—which range from something you’d see on a doom metal album cover, to the sort of black-and-white nightmare fuel you’d find in the cult classic, kid-terrorizing Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books—merely set a stage, leaving most of the work up to a GM. But, boy, does this little book give them so many wonderful, creep toys to play with.

Who’s this gift for? Your GM, for sure, as it will supply them with the most psychedelically bleak set of toy they’ve ever come across. It’s an OSR-styled game, meaning rules and character generation should be pretty easy for them to explain to a group. I’ll repeat, this is not a complex rules system: most of the essentials are summarized on a single page in the back of the book. You’re not picking this up for a book of rules, anyway: you’re buying this for its wealth of ideas and its jaw-droppingly awesome presentation. (Learn more here.)

D&D: Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (Wizards of the Coast)

RRP: $50

Similar Xanathar’s Guide to Everything – one of D&D 5e’s most essential “non-essential” books – the new Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything is sort of a catch-all volume, collecting ideas and concepts that can shake up just about any aspect of your Dungeons and Dragons gameplay experience. Inside you’ll find a new class (artificer) and new subclasses for your old favorites; more spells, feats, puzzles, and artifacts. Some of the cooler ones we stumbled across were magic tattoos, and what’s effectively a powerful mech suit that will aid heroes in combat – but is almost (certainly) haunted, and may occasionally try to kill your party while you’re not paying attention. There are also rules for establishing your party’s raison d’etre by giving them a patron, who can range from a rich, merchant sugar daddy to an ancient, arcane being – and, an easy-peazy generator for basic, party-friendly NPCs to use as “sidekicks,” and can be taken along on your adventures. Players and DMs alike will find interesting ideas contained inside this compendium. (Learn more here.)

Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying (Free League)

RRP: $98 for Bundle Shown Here

Vaesen are the supernatural creatures of the Mythic North—the steampunkish, pseudo-19th Century Scandinavia in which this new roleplaying game is set. Your parties play as investigators of sorts, who are able to see these monsters of legend and seek them out, helping out people who are having issues with them. Adventures take the form of mysteries, as your characters are called in to check out some supposed Vaesen shenanigans, and then sent forth to resolve the issue. What makes these adventures most interesting are that the monsters—trolls, faeries, ghosts, and things more frightening—aren’t necessarily evil, and expelling them might not be the best way through the situation.

Dubbed “Nordic Horror Roleplaying,” Vaesen mines it folkloric roots to create a setting that feels quite unique compared to many other horror RPGs. The feel itself is more in line with a dark fairy tale, rather than the existential dread you’ll find in, say, a Lovecraftian theme; it’s not without humor, either, as some of the mysteries could even be considered light-hearted. The attractive, hardcover rulebook is full of beautiful pencil illustrations that better immerse its readers into the game’s world. If you’re in the mood to give your gaming group a series of adventures different than any they’ve probably seen before, Vaesen should strongly be considered. (Learn more here.)

D&D: Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden (Wizards of the Coast)

RRP: $50

This D&D 5e adventure module—designed for characters up to level twelve—is set in the frozen, Northern region of Icewind Dale, where an arcane goddess has cast a spell that keeps the sun from rising, and the land enveloped in night save for a brief, four hours of twilight. Can you stop her, and bring daylight back to the realm?

This new campaign book will give your D&D group a frosty land to explore—and isn’t that appropriate for the coming holiday season? This adventure is particularly open-ended, allowing players to wander throughout the cluster of wrecked villages known as Ten Towns, before heading off into icy caverns or across the snowy tundra. (Learn more here.)

Tales from the Loop: Out of Time Mystery Compendium (Free League)

RRP: $33

It’s no big secret that Tales from the Loop is one of our favorite roleplaying discoveries of the last few years – the core starter set even topped our tabletop gift guide in 2018. If you followed our advice and purchased that game for the RPG lover in your life (or yourself, we won’t judge), then they’ve no doubt worked their way through the mysteries included in the initial batch of books by now. Fortunately, there’s a new campaign book out there titled Out of Time, containing three new, full adventures, some tools to create your own stories, and a “Mix CD” of eight short mysteries based on hit songs from the ‘90s, which can be expanded by the GM into more robust experiences. All-in-all, it’s a wealth of material to add to your adventures in the Loop. (Not to mention: the 125-page hardcover is full of Simon Stalenhag’s gorgeous artwork, which is worth the price of admission even if you don’t wind up playing it.)

Set in an alternative “80s that never was,” Tales from the Loop has your group play kids aged ten to fifteen, living in a town where unexplained things happen on the regular, and the adults are often of little help—leaving your savvy crew of youngsters to get to the bottom of things. (Think: The Goonies, E.T., Stand By Me, Stranger Things, The Last Starfighter, My Science Project…) One of the things we really love about it is that it forces you to roleplay not only the supernatural/science fiction-infused adventures, but the relationships and anxieties of everyday tween/teen life. If you haven’t dipped your toes in yet, you can begin with either the core book or a value-priced starter bundle – either one would earn our full recommendation, so feel free to choose whichever better fits your budget. (Learn more here.)

Dialect: A Game about Language and How It Dies (Thorny Games)

RRP: $29

Dialect is quite unlike anything we’ve covered here before. This tabletop game – played from a single book and a few stacks of cards – has players working together to form their own system of communication over a span of time that could represent weeks, centuries, millenia, or anywhere in between. Your invented languages take shape as you tell a shared story; there’s no need for someone to run the game, so all participants can play together, and character generation is boiled down to a drawing of “archetypes” which loosely inform your role within an isolated society, and how it relates to others. Players are given hands of cards that essentially feature a short definition, and are tasked with coming up with the words that will represent those, either on their own or with the help of their tablemates. Your shared, invented vocabulary will grow as your work together through your tale.

Oh – and the book is absolutely gorgeous.   

Dialect is an incredibly unique game, and one that will highly depend on your group’s willingness to embark on such an experimental endeavor. That will also inform what you decide to use as your game’s setting, and those options are wonderfully open-ended. (Besides the expected set-ups of playing as, say, interplanetary colonizers or stone age tribes, there are some truly far-out settings you could take for a spin, such as a reclusive cult or a collection of toys being passed from one child to another, a la Toy Story.) If you know anyone interested in language and its development, this is sure to be a fascinating tabletop experience. (Learn more here.)

Mid-Priced Games

Under Falling Skies (Czech Games Edition)

RRP: $30

This game has the special distinction of being our exclusive solo game – and considering how near impossible it’s been to get game groups together during a pandemic, it’s something worth extra consideration this holiday season. Part Space Invaders, part tower defense-style game, you’ll be rolling and placing dice to protect your cities from a fleet of alien spacecraft and an ever-descending mothership. Gameplay presents you with a series of double-edged swords: selecting bigger numbers will generally give you better effects, but they also speed up the enemy ships’ descent. These choices offset the luck of the rolls, giving Under Falling Skies a deeper degree of strategy than you’d expect from a dice-based game.

The kicker is the amount of stuff you get inside the box that increases this game’s replayability. There’s a campaign mode with gradually revealed content, including a storyline, more cities and upgradable characters, plus unique scenarios. This guarantees a solo game that you won’t get bored with for a long, long time. (Learn more here.)

Holi: Festival of Colors (Floodgate Games)

RRP: $40

The team at Floodgate Games sure know how to publish pretty-looking games. They’ve followed up the stained glass-themed, Under the Radar-favorite Sagrada and the similarly attractive Bosk with a new release called Holi: Festival of Colors, which literally and figuratively pops from the tabletop. The game is played on a three-dimensional, three-tiered board – sort of like a cookie serving plate – made out of clear plastic, so that the action on each level can be easily seen. Holi is inspired by the Indian festival of the same name, in which those celebrating throw colorful powder at each other; in the board game, you play cards that designate where you’ll lay your color of chips on the grid. (Thus, the clear boards quickly fill with colorful tokens.) You gain points by hitting your opponents with your colored powder, spreading it onto the different tiers, and fulfilling randomly-drawn objectives.

Holi has very nice production value and is certainly an eye-catcher. We’d recommend this for anyone you know enjoys area control games, as the multiple levels really make it feel different, or for any gamer who really values aesthetics when they bring something new to the table. (Learn more here.)

Meeple Land (Blue Orange Games)

RRP: $35

This brightly-colored tile placement game from Blue Orange allows players to build competing amusement parks. You’ll each start with an empty plot of land, which you’ll fill with thrill rides and amenities that’ll net you money to buy more rides and more amenities. You’ll also need to attract visitors through advertising: ideally, ones that have a taste for the sort of rides you have in your park. Placement is a heavy consideration, as you’ll need your pathways to connect to one another, and having certain types of tiles connected will yield bonuses. (Plus, you don’t want to run out of space or box yourself in!) This is a surprisingly deep game with a fun theme and playful illustrations. We wouldn’t quite call it entry level, but the box suggests ages ten and up, which feels quite right if you have a family that frequently games together. (Learn more here.)

Wavelength

RRP: $40

Now, here’s our favorite party game of 2020 – one that we can’t wait to break out once we live in a world where we can throw parties again. Until then, we’ve been playing this in a group of four, and it’s a blast even at a smaller count. You break yourselves up into two teams, and one player is designated the “psychic.” There’s a wheel that spins that only they’ll see – it will land somewhere in a spectrum of two extremes. A card will be drawn that designates two ends of a spectrum: i.e., “hot or cold,” “best movie or worst movie,” “Gyffindor or Slytherin,” and so forth. The psychic can give a clue – say, “oatmeal,” and then will sit put while everyone else discusses where between the two extremes that clue might lie. The psychic’s teammate will set the dial somewhere between the two, and the opposing team will have a chance to steal by guessing whether they’re to the right or left of the correct answer. Wavelength is simple to teach, but very, very hard to master – and leads to many surprising and humorous discussions.

Wavelength is one of those games that will test how well you know the way your teammate thinks. That means it’s especially great for couples, or families, or any other group of players with long histories together. The plastic dial that props up inside the box gives the game a fun, gameshow-like presentation. We predict this will be a hit with both gamers and non-gamers at any gathering, and honestly – if one person has a copy of the game, it shouldn’t be that hard to figure out how to play it over a video chat. That being said, a remote play app is on its way. (Learn more here.)

Cloud City (Blue Orange Games)

RRP: $30

This gateway game from the ever-reliable Phil Walker-Harding (Imhotep, Barenpark) is a knockout on the table thanks to its eye-catching, three-dimensional weave of towers and bridges. Gameplay is simple enough: players will take turns placing tiles, which will have towers of varying heights on them. They’ll try to connect these towers with bridges of varying lengths; you’ll score points based on the length of your bridges, and a handful of variable conditions. What’s especially nice? It’s the sort of game that sets itself up and puts itself away, as scoring is most easily done by tearing down your Cloud City. (Learn more here.)

Fog of Love (Hush Hush Projects)

RRP: $50

Fog of Love is another game that attempts to do something that no other board game has been ambitious enough to try. It’s essentially a relationship simulator, which turns the highs and lows of falling (and staying) in love into a game. For two players (obviously), each of you will create a character with their own, individual desires. Part of the objective in Fog of Love will be finding a balance between your personal wants, those of your partner, and the needs of your relationship. That’s a challenge in real life, and it is in Fog of Love, as well, considering your personal goals are hidden from your partner. While Fog of Love is a cooperative game, you’ll only win if you both achieve your personal goals. It’s entirely possible for one or both players to be left behind, as they make sacrifices to their own interests to keep the relationship alive. In Fog of Love as in real-world love, a relationship can easily wind up being one-sided.

That probably sounds way heavier than it is – Fog of Love is often described as a romantic comedy, and many of the situations it throws you into head-first are certainly more of that flavor than being too serious. Still, it’s gonna be one you’ll want to make sure is right for whomever will be playing it. (If you’re worried about triggering a fight in your real-life relationship, well, this probably isn’t one to bring home.) But, if you know someone up to roleplay a romance, this is a game that’ll provide an experience we’re sure will be different than any they’ve played before. Plus, it’s a darn good-looking game with excellent components, and with several reasonably-priced expansions to ensure it has life well past the point you’ve exhausted the scenarios in this box. (Learn more here.)

Licensed Games

Back to the Future: Dice Through Time (Ravensburger)

RRP: $40

When Back to the Future came out in 1985 there wasn’t a barrage of merchandise connected to it, even though it was the biggest film of the year. Only three films were made, the last of the trilogy coming out in 1990, with no hope of further sequels, remakes, reboots, prequels, or spinoffs. And yet, three decades later the classic films are still beloved and there appears to be more Back to the Future products than ever (in a local Walmart recently I spotted a whole display of Back to the Future collectibles and toys), including two notable games this year, with a board game from Funko and this dice game from Ravensburger. In the game, Biff has stolen the DeLorean and traveled throughout time, messing up events and leaving important items across the decades. Players help Doc Brown and Marty McFly fix things.

Back to the Future: Dice Through Time is a handsomely put together game. The instruction booklet is presented as a DeLorean owner’s manual. The back of the fold up board includes a letter from a future Doc Brown to a present Doc Brown and Marty setting up the story of the game. The front of the colorful board is split into the four time periods from the films (1885, 1955, 1985, and 2015), with architecture to match each era. Via dice rolls and various cards representing events or items from the films, your goal is to complete all your tasks before the OUTATIME marker reaches the game over space. But remember to try to avoid meeting your other selves or you might cause a paradox. It’s hard to see how fans of Back to the Future won’t delight in this game, which was designed by Chris Leder, Ken Franklin, and Kevin Rodgers. It’s recommended for two to four players aged 10+ and should take 45-60 minutes. By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)

The Child Shaped Playing Cards Star Wars - The Mandalorian (Aquarius/Fun.com)

RRP: $10

These are just playing cards, with aces, kings, queens, and the like. But these are Mandalorian playing cards. More specifically they are themed to The Child. Baby Yoda! Need I say more? Okay, they are shaped like The Child’s floating crib. Play anything from Poker to Go Fish, but do so knowing the Force is with you and that this is the way you now play cards. By Mark Redfern (Buy it from Fun.com here.)

Elf: Journey From the North Pole Game (Funko Games)

RRP: $20

It’s hard to create a bonafide classic Christmas movie that endures for years to come. For every A Christmas StoryHome Alone, or The Nightmare Before Christmas there are plenty of others that get a quick bah humbug (Santa Claus: the MovieChristmas With the Kranks, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Santa With Muscles, Jingle All the Way 2, Surviving Christmas, Deck the Halls, Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever, Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman, and the list goes on). Few Christmas movies of the last two decades are as beloved as 2003’s Elf, which has also spawned a 2010 Broadway musical, a 2014 stop-motion animated TV special, and plenty of other merchandise. And now we have Funko Games’ Elf: Journey From the North Pole Game.

In the movie, Will Ferrell played Buddy, a human orphan who accidentally climbed into Santa’s bag at the orphanage and ended up being raised by elves (in particular Bob Newhart’s Papa Elf). As an adult, Buddy realizes his true heritage and travels to New York City to track down his biological father, cynical children’s book publisher Walter Hobbs (James Caan). Along the way he falls in love with Jovie, a department store elf with a lovely singing voice (fittingly played by Zooey Deschanel). In Elf: Journey From the North Pole Game you help Buddy get from the North Pole to New York City and his dad. Each player starts with a Goal card, which lists out three locations you need Buddy to visit on the way to NYC and the more of those locations he visits the more points you get. But other players have their own set of locations they are trying to get Buddy to land on (there is only one Buddy playing piece you all share). Using Path cards, which features arrows pointing in different directions, you move around the board, getting extra points if you land on the gingerbread or maple syrup tokens. The family friendly game is easy to learn and doesn’t take too long (around 20 minutes), making it a fun little game to play this holiday season in between rounds of eggnog. By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)

Footloose Party Game (Funko Games)

RRP: $17

1980s nostalgia is alive and well, as is the habit to adapt classic movies and TV shows into games, but despite those two facts, Footloose may not be the most obvious film to get the game treatment. Funko has found a way to do it. The first thing you notice about Footloose Party Game is that the playing pieces are legs in different types of footwear (yes, one set has legwarmers on). Each player has a double-sided playing mat that features six different locations/rounds, starting at high school and ending at the prom. Your goal each round is to get the most number of points via numbered cards you draw without going so high you get busted for dancing (remember that the Kevin Bacon film is about a small town in Utah where dancing is against the law). For example, in the high school round you need to get in the sweet spot of 8-10, any less and you don’t get any points, but any more and you get busted. Some rounds include dance offs, where players put down their best cards at the same time, with the highest cards getting the point. Once you get to the prom, the player with the most overall points wins.

It may sound somewhat complicated, but we found it an easy to learn game. For now you need to play with your immediate family, but once the pandemic is over, invite over some ’80s loving friends, slap on the Footloose soundtrack, and play away as Kenny Loggins belts out of that decade’s best loved movie themes. It’s for three to eight players and recommended for ages 10+ (although my near eight-year-old daughter played it just fine). By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)

Godzilla Tokyo Clash (Funko Games)

RRP: $35

Godzilla has been a surprisingly resilient character. First appearing in the film of the same name in 1954, he has headlined 36 films, including four Hollywood productions. Considering that the plots of the various movies are basically the same—Godzilla shows up and fights other giant monsters, often helping humanity but often also destroying a city (or cities) along the way—and the human characters are often interchangeable, it’s amazing there’s still much mileage in the franchise over half a century later. In recent years there have been 2014’s well-received Legendary Pictures/Warner Bros. film Godzilla and its 2019 follow-up Godzilla: King of the Monsters, with another sequel, Godzilla vs. Kong, due out next year. Meanwhile 2016’s Japanese production Shin Godzilla was nominated for 11 Japan Academy Prize awards (their version of the Oscars), winning seven, including Best Picture and Best Director, and in recent years there have also been a trilogy of Japanese animated films released theatrically in Japan and worldwide on Netflix. There’s just something about the big guy, about watching a giant lizard stomping through a city, that still captivates audiences.

Funko Games’ Godzilla Tokyo Clash is a two to four player game in which you play as one of four monsters: Mothra, Megalon, the three-headed King Ghidorah, and of course Godzilla himself. You are battling for dominance while laying waste to a Japanese city, gaining energy by destroying buildings and vehicles. And then you fight other monsters, throwing tanks, trains, and battleships at them, or even throwing the competing Kaiju. The unique board comes in separate pieces that you put together in different configurations, depending on the number of players. And the playing pieces for each monster are nicely detailed for their size. All the artwork on the Kaiju Cards is vibrant and dynamic. As long as there’s no mention of 1998’s truly terrible Godzilla film starring Mathew Broderick, Hank Azaria, and Harry Shearer, a good time should be had by all. Godzilla Tokyo Clash is recommended for ages 10+ and is expected to take 45 minutes to play. By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)

Pan Am The Game (Funko Games)

RRP: $35

There was a time when air travel was glamorous and exclusive and the airline that most excelled at this was Pan Am. It was founded in 1927, finding initial success with its Clipper seaplanes. With the jet age in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s and 1970s Pan Am became the most iconic airline of the era, with its distinctive blue and white logo and its fitting slogan “World’s Most Experienced Airline.” It was on a Pam Am flight that The Beatles traveled to New York City in 1964. In Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, a future is imagined in which Pan Am flew to the moon. And in Ridley Scott’s 1982 dystopian masterwork Blade Runner, electronic billboards for Pan Am were found in its futuristic rainy Los Angeles of 2019. The airline was such a fixture of the industry that it was expected to stay in business into the 21st century and beyond. Alas Pan Am was permanently grounded in 1991, when the company had to declare bankruptcy due to various factors, including the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am flight 103 above Lockerbie, Scotland, the deadliest terrorist attack in the history of the United Kingdom.

Funko’s Pan Am The Game returns you to the luxury of the airline. The retro looking game board features a map of the world with various air travel routes that transverse the Earth. You play as the head of the airline and your goal is to build up the business, claiming routes by sending engineers to acquire airports, planes, and destinations, including getting landing rights. The player with the most Pan Am stock at the end of round seven wins the game. Pan Am The Game is stylish enough that you could imagine it being sold midflight in the duty free during Pan Am’s heyday. The game is recommended for two to four players aged 12+. By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)

Pop! Funkoverse Strategy Game – Back to the FutureThe Golden Girls, and Wonder Woman (Funko Games)

RRP: $25 each

Funko Games Pop! Funkoverse Strategy Game series makes for some unexpected crossovers. The four variations of the Expandalone two-player games we were sent were Back to the FutureWonder Woman, and two for The Golden Girls. Each version comes with two mini Pop! figures—Marty McFly and Doc Brown for Back to the Future, Wonder Woman and The Cheetah, and each of the four Golden Girls. For a two-player game you can just play one version, but you can also combine games and mix and match, so that a quick witted middle aged Miami substitute teacher named Dorothy Zbornak can battle an Amazon princess or a time traveling teenager from Hill Valley, CA. Each version comes with an appropriate double-sided game board—downtown Hill Valley and Café ’80s, Themyscira, a one-level house in Miami, etc. Using your character card and special abilities you move across the board, with the goal to knock down your opponent and take them out of the game. While a character such as Wonder Woman has the heroic abilities you’d expect (“Fight for Justice” and “Inspire Courage”), more amusing are the special abilities of each of the Golden Girls. Blanche Devereaux’s abilities include “Flirt,” “Southern Hospitality,” “Hi, Boys,” and “Devastatingly Beautiful.”

Not into Back to the FutureThe Golden Girls, and Wonder Woman? That’s okay, there are also variations for Harry PotterJawsJurassic ParkRick & MortyThe Nightmare Before ChristmasBatmanGame of Thrones, and even one featuring the jug mascot from the Kool-Aid commercials. Each game is good for two players (unless you combine them with other variations or get one of the larger sets that includes four characters) and is recommended for ages 10+. By Mark Redfern (Buy Back to the Future version here. Buy Golden Girls – Dorothy Zbornak and Sophia Petrillo version here. Buy Golden Girls – Rose Nylund and Blanche Deveraux version here. Buy Woman Woman version here.)

Stocking Stuffers

Air, Land, & Sea (Arcane Wonders)

RRP: $15

Air, Land, & Sea is an incredibly clever little two-player game that is more similar in flavor to the classic Love Letter than it is the military combat game it might look like from the cover artwork. Players will duke it out over three theaters of war – air, land, and sea – trying to win two out of three of them, or concede as soon as they realize they’re fighting a losing battle. You’ll do this by taking turns laying out cards from a small (random, incomplete) deck, which offer strength (number) values and special abilities that let you alter or break the rules in the game. Given that both players are working with the same decks, after a few plays you’ll learn what every card does and can try to guess your opponent’s moves. The greatest strategy may not lie in out-maneuvering your opponent, but knowing when to fold ‘em and lower the number of points they’ll get for their inevitable win.   

As strange as this is to say about a game with a WWII theme: Air, Land, & Sea is a great game for couples, which moves fast and comes in a small enough box to easily take on the go. (Learn more here.)

The Crew (KOSMOS)

RRP: $15

The Crew was this year’s recipient of the Kennerspiele des jahres, one of the two most prestigious awards in board gaming, and deservedly so. This ingenious spin on a trick-taking card game (think: Hearts or Bridge) prohibits players from talking to each other as they work together to pull off a series of specified tricks. Every player is allowed one exception to this rule, where they’re allowed to reveal a single card from their hand to the rest of the table, and signify whether it’s their highest, lowest, or only card of that suit. The challenge lies in trying to convey your plan silently, while doing your best to read your tablemate’s mind. It’s simple to teach, and a game even your aunt who only plays Hearts will be able to get behind. The booklet is stuffed with “missions” of varying difficulties, so you can tweak the challenge level upwards as your group gets better and better at the game. (Learn more here.)

Sprawlopolis (Button Shy Games)

RRP: $12

There are small box games, and then there are pocket-sized games. Sprawlopolis is tiny enough to fit in a wallet, yet somehow packs in the sane flavor as a city-builder with many more components and a far bigger box. The game is made up of a scant eighteen double-sided cards, one face showing four types of city blocks and winding roads, and the other a unique scoring parameter. When the game begins you’ll dole three of those out, setting up your objectives. (Since those are different every time, this tiny game comes with more variants than any of us will ever be able to play.) You’ll be laying down these cards, trying to connect big sections of the same type for more points, while trying to create the fewest new roads as possible – and doing whatever it is your trio of special scoring cards ask of you. Where it tests your brain is by allowing you to lay cards on top of each other – creating an ever-shifting cityscape.

There is a heck of a lot of game to be found in Sprawlopolis, which is really nice to say about something you can pretty much carry on your person at all times without anyone noticing. (Learn more here.)

Yacht Rock (Funko Games)

RRP: $17.00

“Yacht rock” wasn’t even a thing when yacht rock was a thing. Meaning that in the genre’s mid 1970s to mid 1980s heyday, the music was referred to “adult-orientated rock,” “West Coast Sound,” or “soft rock.” It wasn’t until 2005 that the term was coined, in connection to an online comedy video series of the same name in which various actors played such masters of the genre as Hall & Oates, Michael McDonald, Steely Dan, and others. Sure, some yacht rockers owned boats or sang about them, most famously Christopher Cross’ “Sailing,” but others had little to do with anything nautical. Still the term stuck.

Funko Games has clued into this enduring phenomenon and created a party game out of it. Yacht rock is not the most obvious thing to turn into a game, but Funko has pulled it off with an amusing 25-minute or so game. You play as ’70s yacht rockers from Southern California and you rack up points by putting together stylish outfits, recording hit singles, and attending parties. You play for three rounds, mainly with the aid of style cards, which are a mix of clothing styles and musical styles (including soothing saxophone of course). Fittingly, the game pieces are guitar picks. So throw on Steely Dan’s Aja and get to playing. By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.

Strike! (Ravensburger)

RRP: $20

A fast-paced, dice-driven take on gladiatorial combat, Strike! is another one of the games you can break out with family, mix up any ages or types of gamers, teach in five minutes, and have a good time. Stike! is essentially a bunch of dice, inside a plastic arena, inside a box. Players will take turns chucking their dice into the arena one at a time trying to collect matches and knock around their opponents’ dice. If you roll an ‘X’ (which replaces the ‘1’ on the six-sided die) it gets removed from the game. Last player holding any dice in their hand is the winner. Strike! takes the tactile fun of throwing dice in a casino game of craps, and converts it into a low-stress, family-friendly competition. What’s not to like? (Learn more here.)

TENZI (Carma Games)

RRP: $25

TENZI is a set of forty (!) six-sided dice in four different colors. The name of this game is speed – players will be competing by rolling their dice as quickly as possible, trying to get all ten to match. First one to get there shouts “Tenzi!” – and that’s pretty much what you need to know to play! It sounds simple, but this game gets loud and rowdy fast, with errant dice frequently bouncing off tables and being chased under chairs. It’s a straight-forward delight at any age and, if you somehow tire of the wild base game, the instructions include plentiful rule variants to turn your next session on its head. (Learn more here.)

The Great Dalmuti: Dungeons & Dragons (Wizards of the Coast)

RRP: $15

For the D&D fan who already has all the dice they’ll ever need, this is a gift they’ll love finding in their stocking. Richard Garfield’s other classic card game turns 25 this year, and so Wizards of the Coast have marked the occasion with a Dungeons and Dragons-themed version of The Great Dalmuti. A quick-paced, easy-to-learn card game for four to eight players, this release features some gorgeous illustration work by artist Harry Conway. (Learn more here.)



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