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Under the Radar’s Holiday Gift Guide 2016 Part 2: Board Games

The Year's Best Tabletop Entertainment for Every Type of Gamer

Nov 24, 2016
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Ladies and gentlemen, we’re living through a Golden Age of board gaming. This isn’t news to any of the many, many of you out there who have already tuned in to the joys and wonders of modern game design, but tabletop gaming is in the middle of a renaissance the likes of which hasn’t been seen since our parents bought their dusty old copies of Monopoly, Clue, and Trivial Pursuit decades ago. There are a number of factors working into this, among them the appearance of gateway games like Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride and Pandemic in stores like Target and Barnes & Noble, bringing newcomers to the hobby thanks to their ease of accessibility. The Internet is also to thank, with sites like BoardGameGeek.com bringing like-minded gamers together, gaming-dedicated blogs and YouTube channels introducing new releases to massive audiences, and Kickstarter offering designers a platform to self-publish their titles. There really hasn't been a better time than now for games of the board, card, or dice variety.

We’ve taken a look at many of this year’s new releases and picked out some of our favorites which we happily recommend as gifts for the gamer in your life. (Or for yourself – no one's judging!) 

Games for Party People:

Celestia

Quick Simple Fun Games - SRP: $29.99

Celestia is an absolutely delightful push-your-luck style game that boasts the single most enjoyable component of any game on this list. In Celestia, you and up to five of your friends take turns playing captain of an absolutely adorable, steampunk airship – and not just a token or card, but a real cardboard airship. The captain pilots his ship from port to port, braving lightning storms and flocks of errant crows to bring his loyal crew to safe harbor. Each new city visited promises greater riches but comes at greater risk: the captain and his crew must gamble on the cards in his or her hand matching a roll of dice, otherwise everyone who stuck it through falls to their untimely deaths (and thus, earn no points.) It’s an extremely simple (and fun) game that both rewards and punishes those Icari who dare fly too close to the sun.

The airship arrives as several thick, punch-out sheets of cardboard which come with assembly directions, like those old Lego sets you absolutely loved piecing together as a kid. Once built, there’s a place for it to neatly fit inside the box where it won’t be jostled loose or fall apart. It’s an ingenious little bit of added fun, and quite frankly I’ll be disappointed by any board game going forward which doesn’t come with a vehicle for my tokens or meeples to ride around in. There’s a great deal of fun to be found in making “pup-pup-pup-pup-pup” noises as the airship leisurely chugs along to its next destination, or releasing a long hiss of air from between your teeth as the vessel slowly plummets toward an indubitably fiery end. (Find a retailer.)

Codenames: Pictures

Czech Games Edition - SRP: $19.95

Codenames was the most recent winner of the Spiel des Jahres, which can be regarded as the Best Picture Oscar but for board games. It’s deservedly sold an incredible number of copies in its first year of existence, and has already inspired a sequel in Codenames: Pictures. This new variation delivers that same great, team-based, clue-giving and hunch-following gameplay, but now with – you guessed it – pictures! And those pictures are incredibly surreal and fun in their own right.

If you’re part of a couple who hosts dinner parties or game nights with other couples, this is perhaps our favorite game to recommend. Teams pair off, with one player giving single-word clues relating to one (or preferably more) cards on the table, and their partner guessing which one they're referring to. Correct guesses bring a team one step closer to a win, while guessing wrong scores a point for the opposing team. Partners who are easily able to communicate ideas to one another in extremely-truncated shorthand have a distinct advantage, which is why it’s perfect for pitting couples against one another. There are also rules for a two-player cooperative game, so you can play at home even when friends aren’t visiting. It’s also worth noting that Codenames: Pictures makes the game more playable for younger children whose reading skills (or word comprehension) aren’t on the same level as adults; this would be very fun to play in, say, a dad-and-daughter versus mother-and-son setting, or something along those lines. (Find a retailer.)

Selections for the More Seasoned Gamer:

Inis

Matagot / Asmodee - SRP: $69.99

Inis is easily one of the prettiest-looking games I’ve ever laid eyes upon. From the beautiful, painted landscapes appearing on the terrain tiles — which (quite amazingly) interlock, despite being cut to resemble like fallen leaves — to the stunningly colorful and psychedelic artwork on the cards, which look like John Baizey-illustrated album covers with slightly fewer skulls and no nudity.

Beyond its aesthetic beauty, a large part of Inis’ elegance comes from its unexpected simplicity. Sure, there are plenty gamers who thrive on extremely complicated, rules-intensive boardgames with manuals the size of a Neal Stephenson novel, but I don’t know a single one who enjoys teaching that sort of game to a newcomer. Inis, fortunately, makes the messy matter of educating first-time players relatively simple. In each round, two to four players draft from a small handful of cards like they would a round of 7 Wonders or a Magic: The Gathering booster draft. Each card states exactly what it does; because turns are limited to playing one of these cards, it’s an incredibly easy game to learn on the fly. Plus, the game has a cool, Celtic mythology theme to it, with the cards referencing specific Irish legends; the rulebook even includes an appendix which briefly summarizes each of these tales for those of us who aren't scholars of Celtic folklore. How cool is that? (Buy it online of find a retailer near you.)

Mexica

IELLO - SRP: $69.99

Mexica isn’t a new game, per se, but a re-release of an older title which didn’t quite receive the lasting appreciation it deserves. As far as area control games go, Mexica feels like an unheralded classic with its hotly competitive action point system and the ability to cruelly wall in your opponents with canals and temples. There can be a very cutthroat angle to this game, but for gamers who thrive on that style of play it's incredibly fun. What makes this edition of Mexica especially special are the resin building pieces that each player is given to use. These weigh, no exaggeration, probably around 15 pounds each. (Well, maybe some exaggeration.) These are some of the heaviest tokens we’ve ever played with, and they’re ridiculously cool – they feel like ancient artifacts more than game pieces, and that’s something no one’s ever said about the little plastic hotels that come packed in Monopoly. It’s a great touch, and albeit purely aesthetic, it’s something that’ll certainly factor into this game hitting your table more often than others, if for anything just to impress your friends with your awesome, stone-like temples. (Buy it online or find a retailer near you.)

Games For the Whole Family:

Ticket to Ride: Rails and Sails

Days of Wonder - SRP: $79.99

If you picked up to this hobby sometime in the last decade, there’s a good chance that Ticket to Ride might have had some hand in your reintroduction to gaming. The series has sold more than three million copies since it was released in 2004 and it’s easy to understand how, with its easy-to-teach set collection gameplay and casual-style strategy making it fun for everyone from regular gamers to those older family members who haven’t learned a new game since Scrabble. (Plus, everybody likes playing with tiny plastic train cars. Everybody.) The TTR series has been released in many varying editions over the years, with additional map packs and expansions allowing players to tailor the game to meet the needs, likes, and dislikes of their particular gaming group. Ticket to Ride: Rails and Sails is among the newest variants, and offers a slightly meatier experience than the base game that should appeal to both seasoned gamers and gaming families with older children.

For those already familiar with TTR, Rails and Sails adds boats and harbors to the long-beloved train-laying action, giving players an additional set of (boat) cards to collect and keep track of. It plays up to five out of the box, and comes with a lovely (and absolutely humongous) two-sided board, one featuring the entire world and the other the Great Lakes region of the U.S. and Canada. (Did we mention these games come with the unadvertised bonus of being good ways to help teach geography?) Ticket to Ride: Rails and Sails is another great version of the game that adds new layers to its strategy; for those families with younger children, the original game gets our recommendation, too. (Buy it online or find a retailer near you.)

Happy Pigs

IELLO - SRP: $34.99

If Agricola taught us anything, there’s a deceiving amount of fun to be found in games with a farming theme. Happy Pigs puts players in charge of a hog farm and tasks them with breeding and caring for their flock of swine, keeping them healthy until they grow big enough to go to the market. The player who raises the fattest piggies makes the most money, and therefore wins. If the theme sounds a little dark, well, the cutesy art style really helps cover up for it, with its blocky, almost Minecraft-y livestock images. (If you forget to vaccinate your pigs and they become ill, you flip the token over to show a pig wearing a Band-Aid. Trust me, the reaction will be more “D’awwwwww” than “Ewwwww.”)

Much of the gameplay revolves around building an economic engine and predicting your opponent’s moves. Adults will appreciate the deeper strategies involved in the game, while kids will enjoy things like feeding their pigs and arranging them in their pens, and it’s also a good way for them to learn concepts like buying and selling. The rules are simple as there are really only a small handful of actions that can be taken on any given turn, which makes it quite easy to teach as you play. (Plus – it tables up to six players at once and actions are taken simultaneously, which makes the game move quickly even with big groups! At under an hour per game, it’s well-suited for big family gatherings.) (Buy it online or find a retailer near you.)

Loony Quest

Libellud / Asmodee - SRP: $29.99

If you’re a parent looking for a way to bring your young kids together around a table for a night of goofy family fun, Loony Quest is hands-down the title on this list that we’re going to steer you toward. The idea is pretty simple: each player is given a plastic screen and an erasable marker. A level is revealed in the center of the table – a colorful board with silly artwork – along with a set of tasks and challenges. The players will be asked to, say, connect certain dots on the board, and they’ll have to do it without using their dominant hand, closing one eye, not bending their elbow, or another similar challenge. The trick is that they do this on their personal screens rather than over the level board, so a lot of guess work is required. Afterward, players take turns laying their screen over the lboard and scoring points based on how close they came to achieving the given goals. If it sounds like it’s easy, we assure you it’s not!

The game’s art style and concept are heavily inspired by kids’ video games. Think: something like Skylanders, or one of the many casual tablet tap-tap-tap-fests like Angry Birds that you’ll catch children playing while their parents enjoy their meal out at a restaurant. This makes it a natural choice if you’re a parent with a kid who’s always glued to their phone or iPad and you’d like to get them to unplug for some family time that includes conversation and eye-to-eye contact. This is lighthearted fun, and a game where grown-ups really won’t have that great of an advantage over, say, a seven-year-old – making it good for a table with mixed age groups. But, if you’re thinking of grabbing it for a group of solely adult gamers, we won’t turn you away: you’ll all feel like seven-year-olds while playing it, and we mean that in the best possible way. (Buy it online or find a retailer near you.)

Games For the Game of Thrones fan:

For a show that takes glee in finding ways to kill off its most redeemable characters, Game of Thrones has an ever-growing number of fans who just can’t get enough. Do you know one of these people? Then hold the door! Have we got a pair of games for you.

The Iron Throne

Fantasy Flight Games - SRP: $49.95

The Iron Throne is Fantasy Flight’s brand new board game built off the framework of frequent Greatest-Game-Of-All-Time-list-topper Cosmic Encounter. That time-tested system of bargaining and bluffing is so well-suited to the fantasy world of Westeros that when this game was announced, the main question on a lot of gamers’ minds was, “Oh, goodness, how in the name of the Drowned God is this not already a thing?” Game of Thrones is a show just as much about political maneuvering as it is about dragons, zombies, and psychic, time-traveling tweens, so it’s hard to imagine a game that could capture the thrills and tensions of the show’s mind games and manipulation better than this.

The goal of The Iron Throne is to be the first great house — you choose from the Starks, Lannisters, and so forth — to spread all five of your influence tokens (read: tiny crowns) to other players’ boards. You do this through keen negotiation, card-based battles, and a heavy dose of deception. Seriously: one of the main keys to success in The Iron Throne involves the ability to look across the table, make direct eye contact with your friend, and then lie directly to their face. “Look, I promise, I am not going to stab you in the back.” Then, you stab the living heck out of their back. (But don’t do it too soon! Because, oh, they’ll remember when their turn comes around again.) Because of the way the game randomizes who faces off against whom each turn, alliances are quickly dashed and enemies are frequently forced to work together; so, be careful who you trust, or maybe better yet, don’t trust anyone at all. If it sounds cutthroat, that’s because it is, but good golly is it a lot of fun. They could have easily called this Game of Thrones: Littlefinger Simulator, because that’s exactly who I felt like each time I attempted to turn my friends against each other for my personal gain. (Buy it here.)

A Game of Thrones: Hand of the King

Fantasy Flight Games - SRP: $12.95

On the other end of the GoT-themed game spectrum is Hand of the King, which is a far lighter game than The Iron Throne but one much less likely to strain friendships. It also comes in a tiny box, which makes it a nice, portable option for tossing in your bag and then breaking out at the coffee shop or corner pub.  

Hand of the King plays well at two or four players and setup takes only two minutes at most. Cards are laid out in a grid and represent sets of houses (again in the House Lannister, House Stark sense) of different sizes. Players or teams take turns declaring a direction as well as a House, moving Varys along that line and collecting all cards of the declared set. (GoT fans: you get to play as Varys, everyone’s favorite eunuch! Again, as a fan of the series’ political subplots, I found this aspect absolutely delightful.) Any completed set allows the player to collect one special character card which executes one specific, frequently game-changing power. Gameplay lasts about 15-20 minutes, and the winner is whoever controls the most majorities of sets. It’s easy to teach and breezy to play, and the cartoonish art style makes it the cutest rendition of Game of Thrones we've seen -- it would be appropriate enough to bring to the table with your mother-in-law, conservative uncle, innocent nephew or anyone else you might otherwise not be comfortable playing a game based on a show that’s mostly nudity and graphic violence with. (Buy it here.)

A game for the Walking Dead fan:

Dead of Winter: The Long Night

Plaid Hat Games - SRP: $59.99

Last year Plaid Hat Games released their breakthrough Dead of Winter, a semi-cooperative survival horror board game which made a huge splash even in a market already overrun with zombie-themed games. The fanfare was well-deserved: its signature Crossroads system  —which forced players to do some real role-playing by putting hard moral decisions squarely in their hands. (This, combined with the sheer number of cool-as-hell zombie and survivor standees which came in the box made it practically irresistible to even the most living-dead-jaded gamers.) Those tough quandaries are what make every game of Dead of Winter such a memorable experience; that, and the lingering fear that someone in your party may be a secret traitor (a la Battlestar Galactica or Shadows of Camelot) keeps it all fun for many playthroughs.

Dead of Winter was a huge success, and like any great horror franchise a sequel would inevitably follow in quick order. The Long Night is just such game: a stand-alone expansion which can be played by itself or combined with the first game for a much greater range of role-playing possibilities. The Long Night introduces several new modules which significantly shake up the Dead of Winter you know and love, from raiders (think: the human factions that are even more dangerous than zombies on Walking Dead) to super-charged zombies and zombie-fightin’ weapons hidden inside a mysterious experimental laboratory. If you’re new to the Dead of Winter experience, the game’s stand-alone capability allows you to skip directly to The Long Night and start from here. Because The Long Night packs in all of the stuff which made the game fun the first time around and then throws in several new, optional modules that radically alter the gameplay, this is where we recommend you begin. If you’re a Dead of Winter fan already, though, you’re going to want to mix this in with your old set to create the ultimate zombie survival experience. Plus: The Long Night introduces a playable monkey character. Team this feller up this with the dog from the first game and you’ve got one heck of an all-animal, anti-zombie task force. (Buy it online or find a retailer near you.) 

And now for something(s) completely different…

4 Gods

Ludically / Asmodee - SRP: $49.99

4 Gods is perfect for the gamer who enjoys Carcassonne (and who doesn’t?) but wishes it was played out in real time and made you feel like a God of your own medieval fantasy domain. Designed by Christophe Boelinger, creator of the phenomenal semi-cooperative Euro Archipelago, 4 Gods takes the joys of tile placement and landscape-building and turns it into a fast-paced game that’s not just about building bigger lakes and forests than your opponent, but crushing their cities to bits by dropping freakin’ mountains (and other terrain) on top of them. Up to four gods – errr, players – rush to grab tiles at random from a black bag and lay them out in the game’s unique, frame-like board area, placing their tiny player pieces on the newly-formed landscape anywhere they feel they’ll score worthwhile points. It’s part puzzle-building, part frantic strategy game. For gamers interested in something that feels semi-familiar yet totally unique in its own right, 4 Gods is worth a close look. (Buy it online or find a retailer near you.)

Adrenaline

Czech Games Edition - SRP: $69.95

Czech Games Edition’s Adrenaline brings the first-person shooter videogame genre into the tabletop arena. Up to five players engage in firefights with a wide variety of familiar FPS weapons; the real challenge comes in managing things like ammunition and timing out your special power-up cards to pull off big combos. One thing that’s really nice is that if a player absorbs enough damage to be “destroyed,” they simply respawn at a nearby point on the board – this keeps the game at a fantastic, low stress level.

If we’re going to put this in console gaming terms, the cool, black-and-neon art style of Adrenaline reminds me of the retro-futuristic look of FarCry: Blood Dragon, while the lighthearted, action-oriented gameplay made me feel like I was playing a classic, cult shooter like TimeSplitters or GoldenEye. (Like Loony Quest, this game would be an excellent way for a parent to get a videogame-hooked child to the table – older kids will have no problem getting the hang of this one.) It’s also totally worth noting the game’s cast of colorful, superbly-sculpted minis and its humorous manual. Like CGE’s beloved Galaxy Trucker, the writing in the rule book is honest-to-goodness funny, which makes even the process of learning the game a fun experience. (Find a retailer.)



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De Spelvogel
January 11th 2017
6:15pm

Very informative guide. Thanks!

Anthony Claok
April 9th 2019
3:12am

Nice collection of board games for holiday gifts to family and friends. I want this.