Under the Radar’s Holiday Gift Guide 2019 Part 7: Board Games | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Under the Radar’s Holiday Gift Guide 2019 Part 7: Tabletop & Board Games

Gift suggestions for any type of gamer

Dec 09, 2019
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The holidays are rapidly approaching, and perhaps there’s still a tabletop gamer on your list you haven’t shopped for. If they need something new to spread across the dining room table on their next game night, we have recommendations that should excite any type of gamer, from the RPG addict to the competitive strategist to the parents out there working on raising young tabletop gamers.  

You know what pairs well with board games? Music. You can take a mosey on down through the past entries in PLAYlist, our column which pairs tabletop reviews with custom-tailored Spotify playlists, or consider grabbing a subscription to Under the Radar for a steady stream of music recommendations.

While you’re here, please feel free to take a scroll through the other sections of our 2019 Holiday Gift Guide. We’ve already published our suggestions for Blu-rays and DVDs, tech items, collectibles, drinks and cocktails, and video games. Stay tuned for more in the coming week.

Big Games

These games come in heavy boxes and contain dozens of deluxe pieces – they’re the juggernauts of any gaming collection, and are the ones you typically plan entire evenings around. They may be among the more premium-priced releases in this year’s guide, but they’re sure to make any gamer on your gift list act like that Nintendo 64 freakout kid when they open them.                                                                                                              

Western Legends (Kolossal Games)

RRP: $75

Western Legends is often described as a “sandbox game,” a term taken from the video games arena that refers to a title that lets players explore at their own pace and, well, do pretty much anything they want. In that sense, Western Legends is the tabletop equivalent of last year’s digital blockbuster, Red Dead Redemption II.

Or, for fans of the HBO show: Western Legends plays like a visit to West World, allowing players to visit this romanticized era of American history and be however good or as villainous as they’d like. You can become the fabled “white hat” or “black hat,” and are free to rustle cattle, hunt down outlaws, prospect for gold, gamble away your earnings, challenge opponents to duels, or take part in many other quintessential, Wild West activities.

While it’s essentially a race for points like so many other board games, a game of Western Legends is as memorable for the wild stories that form along the way as it will be for who comes in first or last place. In one game, I watched my character evolve into a chronic bank robber—released from jail twice only to immediately walk into the nearest bank and stick the place up again on my next turns. At the moment it felt like my most viable strategy to get ahead in victory points, but at the same time it painted a hilarious portrait of a good-for-nothing bank robber who just couldn’t help himself, and wasn’t very good at getting away with it. I wasn’t the only one whose character fleshed themselves out as the game went on, either. In this way, Western Legends featured more bona fide storytelling than nearly any Euro-style game we’ve ever played. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

U-Boot (Phalanx)

RRP: €94.95

We never had the opportunity to play another game with quite the same level of table presence as U-Boot: this is a game that absolutely fills a table, with much of that space being occupied by a gigantic, cardboard, miniature-filled model of a German submarine. This is a massive, real-time game which tosses its player directly into WWII sub warfare scenarios – its chaos is controlled through a companion app that constantly barks damage reports, sonar blips, and other problems that you and your friends will madly try to work together to solve. The app even allows you to see through your ship’s periscope, which makes the underwater setting feel all that much more realistic.

U-Boot plays one to four players, but at the full count is where it becomes most immersive. Those players take on four different roles on the ship: the captain, the navigator, the first officer, and the chief engineer. Each role plays very differently, and has a very different set of responsibilities. While you’ll each have your own, unique set of fires to put out, you’ll need to work together to succeed. If you can’t work as a well-oiled machine, your sub will be sinking to the bottom of the sea before you know it. There’s so much that can go wrong, from enemy boats to leaking gases to poor crew morale. Yes, U-Boot is a stressful game, but that only makes it all the more gratifying when you succeed.

Without a doubt, U-Boot is one of the most immersive gaming experiences we’ve ever had on the tabletop. There’s so much to it – the manual is bigger than three or four other, average games’ combined – but if you have a group dedicated enough to learn their roles, then prepared to fail the game several times, you’ll be rewarded with an experience that’s more engrossing and intense than any you’ll find. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Pax Pamir: Second Edition (Wehrlegig Games)

RRP: $85.00

For much of the 1800s, the British Empire and Russian Empire waged a lengthy, political battle over Afghanistan and its surrounding territories. Great Britain feared that conceding the area would weaken their grasp on India as their colonial holding; Russia desired to keep the British as far out of Asia as they could. The decades-long threat of war between the two colonial superpowers was held at bay through diplomatic and political maneuvering that was eventually termed “The Great Game.”   

Pax Pamir is a tabletop simulation of this historical period, and it somewhat surprisingly comes from Cole Wehrle, the same designer as the cuddly, breakout hit Root, everyone’s favorite game about the turf war between fuzzy, woodland critters and their feathered foes. Sure, this game isn’t nearly as cute as Root, but holy moly is it an incredibly deep, strategic experience.

This isn’t a wargame, but a game of shifting alliances, backstabbing, and bandwagon-jumping, where players will need to keep their eyes on the ever-morphing landscape and jockey for the favor of the dominant empire – or help a dark horse power maneuver their way to the top. This isn’t one of those games where you’re pushing one color of armies around the board – loyalties can shift at any time. You and your opponent may both be betting on the same horse, but one of you will have to jump ship to support an underdog because it’s hard to win when you’re sharing the same points pie. One of the ways to gain influence with a power is recruiting their agents to your court – and then murdering them in cold blood, if it’s favorable all of a sudden to be allied with their political enemy. Pax Pamir is a thematically brutal game, where any single move can have huge consequences on the standings. 

Please pardon me for the moment while I switch geekdoms, but I think the following statement will really help anyone who gets the reference. Have you watched/read the Game of Thrones series? Well, when he isn’t busy playing the game of thrones, we have to imagine this is just the sort of game Littlefinger would have been playing on those long caravan rides between the South and North. In fact, Pax Pamir Second Edition probably would have become Littlefinger’s favorite game of all time.

Streamlined for this second edition, Pax Pamir may be the most thought-provoking and historically detailed games we’ve ever played. It’s also the most elegant-looking, with a fabric board and heavy, resin pieces that make it more resemble a field war map from the 19th century than any piece of cardboard ever did. If you know someone who likes their games complex and tactical with many, many strategies to unpack, this is a game that could test their minds for years to come. It’s also a great gift for anyone interested in history, taking every opportunity to educate players about the era, conflict, and its players as they plan out their next betrayal. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Black Angel (Pearl Games)

RRP: $79.99

Mankind’s final innovation and last hope, the space vessel Black Angel hurtles through space containing the genetic remains of the human race, launched in hopes of reaching an inhabitable planet lightyears away and reviving their extinct species. Even in the Earth’s final years the great nations could not agree on whose AI would operate the ship, and so the Black Angel was loaded with several artificial intelligences who would work in tandem to carry out this crucial mission. However, the AIs were given competing agendas, and the fate of humanity rests in their digital hands.

Bleak, huh? Black Angel has one of the most grim premises we’ve played with since Pandemic, yet it’s somehow one of the most colorful games that’s hit our test table in some time. Black Angel is the decade-in-the-making follow-up to Troyes, a dice-grabbing strategy game that we raved about all the way back in PLAYlist 19. Players will adopt the roles of one of the ship’s competitive AIs, making repairs, commanding robots, upgrading ship technology, and navigating hostile alien species. A very complex affair that can feel at times like you’re playing multiple games at once, Black Angel is a brain-burning challenge that will reward gamers who love a multi-layered tabletop experience. Plus, the production is very cool – the neon colors pop off the tabletop, and the way in which you advance the ship miniature closer to its destination really gives the sense that you’re hurtling through space. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Clank! Legacy: Acquisitions Incorporated (Renegade Game Studios)

RRP: $100

The original Clank! is a game we loved and talked about at length all the way back in one of our first tabletop columns. Since that article it’s grown to become one of the true New Classics of the hobby, receiving numerous expansions and spin-offs since its initial release. If you know someone who is a Clank! fan – and to be honest, you can’t spin around in a circle with your arms out at a local game shop without hitting one – then Clank! Legacy may be the best gift you can give them.

We outlined Clank! in much more detail way back when, but the basic gist is that you’ll be racing deep into dungeons to grab treasures, which won’t be much use to you if you can’t make it out of the dungeon alive. Players push their luck by going deeper for better loot, which takes them further away from the dungeon’s entrance – and closer to their possible demise. This is push-your-luck play style at its finest. 

Clank! Legacy puts a semi-cooperative spin on this formula, adding a continuing storyline courtesy of Penny Arcade’s popular Acquisitions Incorporated. Like other Legacy games, you’ll be adding new rules, cards, and stickers to your board over the 10 games in the campaign. Unlike others, you’re not left with something you can’t use again, but instead a Clank! board that you customized yourself. Each game takes up to two hours, meaning you’ll get around 20 hours out of the campaign. If you’ve got a reliable gaming group, a Legacy game is a unique and highly-recommended experience – and from what we’ve played so far, this is an especially entertaining one. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Era: Medieval Age (Eggertspiele)

RRP: $69.99

From the storied designer of Pandemic comes Era: Medieval Age, a hefty box that asks players if they can roll dice and build a better village than any of their opponents. The cool twist? You’re actually, physically building your little village—not just laying cardboard tiles or drawing lines on a grid. Each player has a plastic pegboard they’ll fill out with some of the 100+ colorful, plastic miniatures that represent castle walls, farms, churches, mills, guildhalls, and other sorts of buildings you’d expect to find a medieval Spanish city. Era plays a lot like the roll-and-writes than have boomed in popularity over the past couple years, but watching your tiny, 3D city come together is undeniably cooler than scribbling on a tearaway sheet. The game’s many, many well-produced parts make it feel as much like you’re playing with a toy as a board game. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Strategy Games

Res Arcana (Sandcastle Games)

RRP: $39.99

Dominion used to be the game we’d recommend to bring a lapsed Magic the Gathering player back to the gaming table, but Res Arcana may have finally edged that deckbuilding classic out of that spot. (We’d double down on that sentiment if you play with this game’s drafting setup variant.) Res Arcana pits rival mages against each other in a high fantasy battle royale, exploiting the magic of their lands to craft powerful artifacts and summon fearsome dragons to gain control of valuable landmarks and magical locations. Each player has only a limited deck of ten cards to play with, but the design work and balance that went ensured there are always viable strategies and enticing card interactions to play around with – there are so many variables packed into this mid-sized box. Plus, it boasts one of the best inserts we’ve seen all year, not only easy to organize but making it so the game only takes minutes to set up. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Carpe Diem (Ravensburger)

RRP: $44.99

Carpe Diem is one of the latest games from master designer Stefan Feld, a man who’s probably already come up with a thousand ways to score victory points over his prolific, fifteen-year career. We’re going to go out on a limb here and say that this might be our favorite of his works since his all-time classic The Castles of Burgundy. In the game, you and your opponents will play ring-around-the-rosie on the board’s rondel, grabbing up territory tiles and placing them in your personal town area, a la something like Carcassonne or Isle of Skye. You’ll earn most of your points by completing tile-based objectives at the end of the game and each of its four rounds – it all moves very fast, even at a full player count.

With core mechanisms that are simple to grasp, well-considered iconography, and a 45-minute playtime, it’s wonderfully accessible – and yet, offers the sort of crunchy decision-making on every single turn that keeps bringing Feld fans back into the Feld fold time and time again. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Raccoon Tycoon (Forbidden Games)

RRP: $49.99

With beautiful artwork, posh components, and easy-to-pick up gameplay, Raccoon Tycoon is a rare specimen: a commodity speculation game that’s as good for casual gamers as it is for seasoned ones. Raccoon Tycoon is set in an Industrial Era fantasy world ruled by small mammals: on the cards illustrated impeccably by Annie Stegg Gerard you’ll find cat railroad barons, canine tycoons, and other impossibly adorable creatures painted wearing top hats, monocles, and other fancy dress. Players manipulate a market for the game’s many lavish wooden tokens by buying and selling their goods, occasionally triggering heated auctions for the game’s most valuable, points-scoring cards. Designer Glenn Drover’s intuitive gameplay has been combined here with the most deluxe production you’ll find in a game under fifty bucks – there’s more than enough meat on the bone to satisfy the hardcore tabletopper, but it also looks so ridiculously pretty that it may coax even the most ardent anti-gamer to pull up a chair. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Bosk (Floodgate Games)

RRP: $45.00

Now, here’s a game for the fabled Mr. Autumn man. From the publishers of our beloved Sagrada comes an area control game of growin’ trees and sheddin’ leaves. The game takes place over four seasons in a National Park. In spring, you and your opponents will take turns placing your pretty-colored tree standees around the board; in summer, you’ll take your hiker pieces on a walk through the forest, scoring trees based on their values. In fall, players will choose the direction of the wind, which will blow (adorable, wooden, meeple) leaves of their tree’s color across the board’s spaces. In winter, you’ll score points again based on the number of squares your leaves cover.

Bosk works its theme into the gameplay better than almost any we’ve played – as you move through the game’s four seasons, it does really seem like you’re playing out a year in a tree’s life cycle. Plus, it’s beautiful and comes with lots of colorful, wooden pieces. What else can you ask for? By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.) 

Dawn of Mankind (Tasty Minstrel Games)

RRP: $39.95

Next to money, space is usually at the greatest premium when it comes to any serious gamer’s collection. Board games aren’t the cheapest hobby, and they take up a ton of shelf space. That’s why you have to be grateful for games like Dawn of Mankind, which pack the same gameplay of a bigger, mediumweight Euro into a box that could fit into the pocket of many large, winter coats – and comes at a price that’s roughly $20 cheaper than similar games of its type.

Playing through the entire lifetimes of your tribe of ancient humans, Dawn of Mankind gives players plenty to chew on without sacrificing component quality. (The game comes with nicely-printed boards and cards, as well as some of the teensiest wooden meeples we’ve ever handled.) You’ll guide your meeples from one side of the board to the other, gaining new meeples, exchanging resources, and generally representing their progress as a culture. The first player to hit 60 points will trigger the end of the game, and likely win. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Roleplaying Games

Skullsplitter Dice Sets (Skullsplitter)

RRP: $27.99 - 29.99

If there’s a tabletop roleplayer in your life, there probably isn’t a more versatile gift – or one that they’ll appreciate more – than a really nice set of polyhedral dice. They’re used in more roleplaying game systems than we can possibly name, meaning they’ll be able to carry their set with them wherever they go, for whatever they play, even when they’re playing D&D on Thursdays and Shadowrun on Saturdays.

Skullsplitter Dice is a family-run business out of Florida dedicated to making high-quality gaming accessories, including top-of-the-line metal dice. While they’re available in a variety of quantities and assortments, you can’t go wrong buying someone one of their sets which contain a d20, d12, two d10s, a d8, d6, and d4. These heavy little guys look awesome, and make a satisfying rumble when they hit the table. If you know a little more about the type of character they play, you can find a set that fits their theme, such as the Warlock Tome – with reflective, smoke-colored dice with flaming red numbers – or our personal favorite, the Dwarven Chest, which contains antique brass-colored dice with black numbers. (Seriously, these things look like they were forged to withstand hundreds of years buried underneath a mountain.) Each is housed within a thematic metal case containing soft foam to keep them from rattling around during transport. A set of these will ensure they’ll never be able to go back to plastic polyhedrals, and should conceivably last them their lifetime. By Austin Trunick (Buy them here.)

Forbidden Lands (Free League Publishing)

RRP: $43.00

Explore the Forbidden Lands, find ways to survive in the dangerous terrain, and eventually build a stronghold to protect yourself and your followers from the wild monsters that roam your world. Billed as a retro roleplaying game, Forbidden Lands comes in a presentation that will take many gamers of a certain age right back to their childhood adventuring days. Housed in a high-quality box that nonetheless calls back to the classic D&D starter sets, Forbidden Lands nails the look and feel of an oldschool RPG with modern gameplay and stellar production value. With two hardbound books full of detailed, black and white fantasy art, a character creation booklet, oversized map and sticker sheet, there’s a lot that comes in this boxed set – all of the essentials you'll need to begin exploring the Forbidden Lands. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus (D&D)

RRP: $49.95

The setting of one of best computer roleplaying games of all time has once again come to the tabletop with Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, a set of adventures for Dungeons & Dragons’ 5th Edition. Baldur’s Gate is a coastal city full of corruption, where adventurers will get roped into a war that reaches into hell itself, pitting players against an archdevil and her armies.  These adventures are tailored toward new characters, levels 1 to 13, so it’s a perfect way for a new dungeon master to get his feet wet, or break in a new adventuring party. This hardcover volume is available in two versions: one with the foreboding fantasy artwork on the left, and another, game store-exclusive version with the stylish skull artwork seen on the right. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Two-player Games

Unmatched: Battle of Legends Volume One (Restoration Games/Mondo)

RRP: $40

This new, tactical miniatures game system utilizes an enjoyably broad definition of the term “Legend,” pitting characters from mythology and literature against characters from the real world and pop culture in knock-down, drag-out 1v1 death matches. Robin Hood versus Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Bruce Lee versus Bigfoot? The possibilities are endless when it comes to potential add-on packs down the line. This introductory core set includes King Arthur, Medusa, Alice of Wonderland, and Sinbad (the legendary adventuring sailor, rather than the star of Jingle All the Way, but maybe in a future set?) With simple rules for attacking and defending, and a deck of cards representing the unique powers of each character, anyone should be able to pick this up and play in quick order – and, it looks absolutely stunning on the table. Lots of care was clearly put into the presentation, from the colorful board to the game’s four detailed miniatures. If you’re up for a head-to-head tactics game that won’t keep you reaching for the rulebook every turn, the Unmatched system shows a ton of promise. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

King Me (Ravensburger)

RRP: $24.99

Can we all just admit that after nine centuries, the game of checkers is starting to get a little old? Variants on this ages-old classic have come around time and again throughout the years, but the new King Me is definitely one of the better ones. Players use the basics of checkers – one red player, one black, moving diagonally and jumping each others’ pieces – to move around a play field that looks nothing like the old checkerboard. This more colorful board is divided into territories in which players will attempt to gain majority for points, and grab little crown pieces that grant them bonuses. The most fun part? Two rivers circle areas of the board, moving players’ pieces rapidly across long distances. With its roots in a game that almost everyone in the world already knows, King Me is a great way to coerce casual gamers into taking their next step into the hobby. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

FunkoVerse Strategy Game (Funko)

SRP: $17 - $25

This team tactics miniatures game comes from the licensing juggernauts behind Funko Pops, meaning that players could someday potentially stage match-ups between characters from just about every realm of pop culture they could dream of. Even at launch, the system includes a few of the most popular franchises imaginable: Harry Potter, the DC Universe, Rick and Morty, and… the Golden Girls? Yes! You can pit Batman and Blanche Deveraux against Hermione Granger and Morty Smith in a deathmatch battle that even many crossover fanfic writers would have a hard time wrapping their heads around. Okay, the game is wacky, but it’s quick to play and a lot of silly fun. If you already love collecting the big-headed Funko figures, then you’ll have a lot of fun setting up these wild matches. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Thematic & Party Games

Paranormal Detectives (Lucky Duck Games)

RRP: $39.99

Here’s a super fun (albeit morbid) game for your next gathering. One person will be designated “the recently deceased,” while other players or teams take on the roles of paranormal detectives and are tasked with trying to solve the big important questions (who, why, how, et cetera) about that person’s suspicious death. Each detective has a deck of cards depicting ways of communicating with the dead: these include things like making a strange noise, pantomiming, or the ghost guiding that player’s hand to draw a picture. Detectives not only must come up with useful questions – yes/no questions aren’t allowed – but suss out which challenging method will be best for the ghost to convey their answer. The dead player performs these actions to the best of their ability; they share a win with any player who correctly answers all the questions surrounding their demise. Each communication card can only be used once, and when they run out the game ends without a winner. This challenging (and often unintentionally silly) party game comes with a large stack of cases. One of the nicest touches? The more mature case cards are clearly marked, meaning it’s easy to remove any storylines that could be too adult for a mixed audience. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Meeple Circus (Matagot)

RRP: $50

Meeple Circus may look like a kids’ game from the outside, but the truth is that it’s a game designed to make adult gamers act and feel like children. The box comes with a wonderful variety of unique meeples in various sizes – acrobats, elephants, horses, camels – that players will deftly stack in the most death-defying towers for audience applause (victory points, that is.) Each round players will draft two cards depicting which of these little, wooden circus folk will join their ring. The players will have a limited time to then stack these figures – loud circus music hilariously serves as the timer, courtesy of a free companion app – in a manner that will score the most points, according to some public goal cards. The second round proceeds similarly, adding a unique “star” meeple for each player to stack with. The third round is the trickiest one, giving players the most pieces to stack and silly things to do while doing so, such as covering one eye, making snide remarks about each meeple’s personal life, or crying out “It hurts! It hurts!” every time one accidentally falls from the stack. Meeple Circus is wild fun, as much a spectator sport as a dexterity game, and one we’d imagine any gamer will have fun with. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Someone Has Died (Gather Round Games)

RRP: $25

This party game asks players to put their improvisational skills to the test and come up with the funniest backstories to win the inheritance of a recently deceased person, as decided by a player acting as the arbitrator of their will.

Each player opens the game with four cards: one giving their identity (say, a psychoanalyst, or a mafia boss), another stating their relationship to the dead person (maybe their parole officer, or a member of their regular roleplaying group), and two pieces of backstory, which range from seeming non-sequiturs like “compulsive air-drumming” to “light up sneakers.” The players will need to come up with characters based on these cards and then maintain them through four rounds in which they plead their cases, and new cards are introduced to their stories. The arbitrator will ask them questions, and eventually determine how the dead person’s estate (which can be as silly as a POG collection – the arbitrator comes up with this stuff) will be divided among the players. No, there's no way of winning in the "traditional" sense, but Someone Has Died is a hilarious toolbox for collective storytelling, and in the right group – especially with the right drinks – it’s an absolute hoot. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Just One! (Repos Productions)

RRP: $24.99

This year’s Spiel Des Jahres winner – that’s board gaming’s coveted “Best Picture” Oscar – Just One! is a sterling example of many qualities the best party games have to offer. First off, it can be explained in minutes, or even learned on the fly: the rules comprise a few sentences, tops. Second, it’s geared toward most age groups. If a player can read and write, they should be able to play no matter how young they are. Outside of perhaps needing help with the definitions of a few words the youngest of kids may not know, this is a game that can be played by multiple generations of a family.

Players are given easels, erasable markers, and a card. The active player will place their card on their easel so that they can’t see it, but everyone else can. Everyone else will think for a moment, then write another word on their own easels. This word will relate to the word the active player will try to guess, as in the game show Pyramid – so, if the word is “spider,” you might write “eight,” “legs,” or “arachnid.” Before the guessing player gets to see the hints, however, the other players will check each others’ work. If two players wrote the same word or close to it, their hints will be removed from the game. Hence, you’ll want to write something that should hopefully help the guessing player, but won’t overlap with another person’s hint. The whole table will be working together to correctly guess as many words as they can. 

Fun and incredibly simple to grasp, Just One! is an instant party game classic. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Chronicles of Crime (Lucky Duck Games)

RRP: $39.99

Over the years we’ve praised board games many, many times for forcing us to put away our phones and enjoy some time with our friends that doesn’t involve glowing screens. Lately, though, there have been games that have successfully married technology with the tabletop in a manner that expands the possibilities of what can be done in this hobby but not at the expense of the many things we love about it, like eye contact and conversation. Chronicles of Crime has the best-integrated app we’ve ever encountered in a board game.

One to four players will be working together to solve a crime, with cards representing the many locations, characters, and clues available to you. These are littered with QR codes that can be scanned in the game’s app, which allow you to question a witness or suspect, or – by far the coolest thing we’ve seen in a mystery game of this sort – look at a detailed, 3D render of a crime scene. (It’s one of those images that moves as you move the phone, turning with your head or position – it’s so, so cool.)

The base box includes five cases, plus guidance as to where you can find the tools to make up your own. New cases can be bought and downloaded – these cleverly re-use the cards and other materials already in your box – and there’s also a Noir expansion, with cases set in a hardboiled, black-and-white world straight out of 1940s Hollywood. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Exit: The Catacombs of Horror (Kosmos)

RRP: $24.95

We’ve recommended the Exit line of games in Gift Guides of Christmas Past, but the new Exit: Catacombs of Horror is essentially the series’ bigger, bolder, and even better version. These escape rooms in-a-box are meant for one-time use, but value-priced for several hours’ worth of enjoyment, they’re a great way to keep a group of gamers puzzling for an entire evening. Catacombs of Horror, however, offers two games in the same box. (It’s also one of their most challenging releases.) Much like an escape room, the Exit games are readily enjoyable without too many rules to learn – meaning, they’re good for both groups of gamers, or a gathering of non-gaming friends. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Horrified: Universal Monsters (Ravensburger)

RRP: $44.99

This co-op game uses the most fun license we’ve seen all year: the classic Universal Monsters of the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, from Dracula to Frankenstein’s monster and his Bride, to the Creature from the Black Lagoon. You and your teammates will be attempting to destroy two to five of these infamous villains as they stalk your village, with the difficulty scaling based on the number of players and baddies you choose to use. Easy to learn with artwork that evokes the theme and some delightful monster miniatures, Horrified is a game you can break out with the family around Halloween – or, heck, any time of the year. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Stocking Stuffers

Silver (Bezier Games)

RRP: $24.95

This fast-paced card game offers a delightful puzzle that reminded us of the classic filler Love Letters, and given how many hundreds of games of that we’ve played over the years, that’s a high compliment. In Silver, players will be competing to have the village with the fewest werewolves hanging around, which I'm sure isn't great for tourism. These wolves are represented by the numbers on the (mostly face-down) cards that represent your villagers; you’ll be trying your best to collect pairs to discard them and lower your total number. The twist, though, is that your villagers will have a myriad of special abilities, allowing you to do things like swap cards from the deck into another player’s village, or sneak peeks at your face-down cards. Everyone wants to have the lowest number but no one knows exactly what their opponents have – heck, you’re lucky if you know what you have in front of you – and a round ends when a player calls for a vote. All towns are tallied, and if the player who called the vote is wrong, they’re penalized. This invites bluffing, and instills Silver with something like a built-in game of chicken. It’s easy to pick up and special powers are plainly spelled out on each card, making it easy to introduce to new players. Future Silver-related releases can be combined with this one to make custom, mega-sets of cards to play with. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Festival of a Thousand Cats (Tasty Minstrel Games)

RRP: $19.95

This adorable little trick-taking card game is all about getting cats drunk – but not too drunk! The cats on these cards are celebrating their seasonal festival and they need fish and milke (or, as we call it, cat-booze) in order to have a good time. Giving this game a twist on normal trick-takers, the deck’s four seasonal suits have a different distribution of numbers – these are outlined on handy cheat sheets, which helps players track all of Festival of a Thousand Cats’ essential information. You’ll be trying to earn points by taking cards depicting fish or booze. (But, if you take too many cards with booze you lose points because your cats will have drank too much.) The artwork in this game is colorful and cute, and there’s something that tickles us about the idea of cats overdoing themselves at a party. This is the least expensive game on our list, and an ideal stocking stuffer. The game isn’t much larger than your average peanut butter and jelly sandwich and comes in one of TMG’s indestructibly thick boxes, meaning it will stand up to whatever lands on top of it in your gamer’s stocking. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)  

Lanterns Dice: Lights in the Sky (Renegade Game Studios)

RRP: $25.00

Renegade’s tile-placing classic has returned in a slim, travel-ready, roll-and-write version that’s small enough to toss in a backpack on your next camping trip. Players will take turns rolling the dice, using the results to draw in various features on their scoring sheet – these represent floating lanterns, and will grant bonuses when you surround special areas of your tear-away, paper lake. Try to trigger combos, and in the end put on the best display of fireworks and decorations to win the emperor’s favor. With a light box and small footprint of space needed to play (you could almost play it entirely of the box bottom and lid), this is a great choice for gamers on the go. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Family Games

Catch the Moon (Bombyx)

RRP: $29.99

Here’s a kid-friendly game that looks like a piece of Dali-esque, surrealist art on the table. Players will take turns rolling the die, their results determining the manner in which they’ll have to place a ladder onto the pile sprouting from a cloud in the middle of the table. (Your ladder will either touch one other, two others, or need to be the tallest-reaching ladder in the stack.) Your Babel-like tower will fall, and fall often, and the ultimate prize will go to whoever made it fall the least number of times, or whoever sends it toppling over during an exciting, sudden death period. Easy enough for even young kids to understand but with a genuinely fun dexterity challenge to it, this is a game that even adults will be happy to play when their children dump the pieces out on the post-dinner table. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)

Challenge of the Super Friends Card Game (Cryptozoic)

RRP: $15.00

For better or for worse, the Super Friends cartoon helped define the characters of DC Comics for a generation of children. The Hanna-Barbera production aired in various versions from 1973 to 1985 as part of ABC’s Saturday morning cartoon lineup. While the show was somewhat simplistic, even compared to the Justice League comic books of the era, it was fun and colorful and kids simply didn’t care. 1978’s Challenge of the Super Friends take on the show featured the Justice League (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman etc.) battling the evil Legion of Doom (Lex Luthor, Cheetah, Black Manta, etc.), whose flying headquarters emerged from the depths of a swamp. In part due to it featuring even more heroes and villains from the source material, Challenge of the Super Friends was a hit with young comic book fans and is one of the better iterations of the Super Friends cartoon and one of the best superhero cartoons of the era, even if Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series in the 1990s and Cartoon Network’s Justice League and Justice League Unlimited in the early 2000s would eventually eclipse Super Friends in terms of sophisticated storytelling and faithfulness to the comic books.

Forty-one years after the show first aired, Cryptozoic has now put out the Challenge of the Super Friends Card Game. Two to four players play at the same time, putting down their cards to see who can capture each super villain (including Captain Cold, Scarecrow, Sinestro, and Brainiac). You can play as Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, or Aquaman and call upon other heroes (such as Hawkman, Samurai, Apache Chief, The Flash, Green Lantern, and even the Wonder Twins) to aid in battle. But be warned, you could be transformed into a troll, trapped in a storybook, frozen in ice, possessed by brain creatures, or stuck in The Phantom Zone. The cards feature new artwork based on the classic series. Challenge of the Super Friends Card Game is recommended for ages 10 and up. It all adds up to plenty of nostalgic fun. By Mark Redern (Buy it here.)

DC Deck-Building Game: Rebirth (Cryptozoic)

RRP: $45.00

Deck-building games once again get the DC Comics treatment from Cryptozoic. The company have produced various other DC deck-building games and expansion packs in the past, featuring the Justice League, Teen Titans, Batman, the Legion of Super Heroes, Teen Titans Go!, the New Gods, and even characters from Watchmen. DC Deck-Building Game: Rebirth centers on the Rebirth relaunch/redesign the DC Comics line went through in 2016 and 2017, continuing to the current continuity. You can play as various characters, including such mainstays as Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Superman, Aquaman, and Cyborg, as well as the more modern Green Lanterns characters Jessica Cruz and Simon Baz. Players can either randomly be assigned a character or pick their favorite and play either competitively, cooperatively, or even solo. Game-play is perhaps a little too complex to fully get into briefly here, but there are over 240 game cards and you move around a board that features various iconic DC locations, including the Batcave, Arkham Asylum, the Daily Planet building, and S.T.A.R. Labs. You have to find the cards you need for your deck to help defeat the plans of various villains. Rebirth is recommended for ages 15+, so it’s not for the little ones. Existing Cryptozoic customers will be happy to know that Rebirth is compatible with all the company’s other DC Comics deck-building games, meaning you can mix and match characters as you please. By Mark Redern (Buy it here.)

Domino Maze (ThinkFun)

RRP: $29.99

There’s a certain satisfaction that comes from putting together a successful domino run, especially a complicated one. It’s a nice feeling when all the dominos perfectly fall in line. Combine that with logic puzzles and you have ThinkFun’s Domino Maze. It’s a one-player game recommended for eight year olds to adults. There are up to 60 challenges, ranging from beginner to expert, in which you have to work out how to place the dominos to maneuver around obstacles and hit the right targets in the correct order, including sometimes going up some clear plastic stairs included as part of the game. Domino Maze comes from the creators of Lazer Maze and Gravity Maze, with challenges created by Wei-Hwa Huang, who is billed as a “world famous puzzle creator.” By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)

Harry Potter Labyrinth (Ravensburger)

RRP: $34.99

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series may have ended in 2007 after a 10-year run of seven books, with the film adaptations wrapping up in 2011, but the world of wizards and Muggles lives on with the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child stage play in London, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park attraction, the Fantastic Beasts prequel film series, and any number of toys and other merchandise. Add to the list Ravensburger’s Harry Potter Labyrinth game. In this variation of the popular Labyrinth board game, two to four players must navigate around a complex maze to find various residents of Hogwarts, including Harry, Ron, Hermione, Professor Dumbledore, Hagrid, and even Harry’s owl Hedwig. It is predicted to take 20-30 minutes and is intended for ages 7-99, so Harry Potter fans of almost all ages can join in and pretend they are following the Marauder’s Map. By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)

Invasion of the Cow Snatchers (ThinkFun)

RRP: $29.99

Most widely reported alien abduction cases date back to the 1950s, although accounts of “mystery airships” date back to at least the 1890s, if not earlier. Over the years there have been many silly reports of cows being taken by UFOs, including a newspaper story told by a farmer in Kansas in 1897 that was later suggested to be an elaborate hoax, as the farmer belonged to a local liars’ club (who knew there was such a thing). You would think that if aliens are visiting this planet they would have more important and interesting things to do than mess with cows. One more entertaining distraction would be to play ThinkFun’s Invasion of the Cow Snatchers game. It’s a single player game for ages six and older. You control a UFO and have to move it around the two-tiered board, magnetically collecting cows in the bottom tier and avoiding obstacles, such as fences and barns. You have to collect all the cows first and then the bull. There are 60 different challenge cards to choose from, each with a different configuration for you to maneuver your UFO around. Invasion of the Cow Snatchers “promotes critical thinking, logical reasoning, and planning and solving.” By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)

Jim Henson’s Labyrinth: The Board Game (River Horse/Fun.com)

RRP: $49.99

Film history is littered with great movies that didn’t do as well at the box office on their initial release as they should’ve. Sometimes it’s down to bad timing or marketing, other times it’s more of a mystery why a film doesn’t connect with audiences. There are even instances where a classic film was originally rejected by many major critics as well. Some of these films found an audience on home media (VHS, DVD, etc.) or TV, others faded away into obscurity, beloved by only a select few. Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth is considered a fantasy classic now, but when it opened on June 27, 1986 it only made it to #6 on that weekend’s box office chart, dropping all the way down to #13 in its second weekend and eventually only making $12.9 million in America, just over half its $25 million budget. Thankfully the movie found a new life on VHS, with both stars David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly telling interviewers the following decade that they were still regularly recognized for Labyrinth by new generations of children just discovering the film. I can attest to this, it’s one of my six-year-old daughter’s favorite movies.

The plot of the film makes it very ripe for a board game adaptation. Jareth the Goblin King (Bowie) kidnaps Toby, the baby half-brother of Sarah Williams (Connelly), taking him to his castle at the center of a tricky labyrinth. Sarah has 13 hours to find her way through the maze or Toby will be turned into a goblin forever. Jim Henson’s Labyrinth: The Board Game, produced by River Horse, has the same premise. Play by yourself or with up to five players aged six or older, although it’s recommended for four players as it’s ideally a cooperative game. The beautifully designed game features lovely new illustrations on the character cards. You can play as Sarah, Hoggle, Sir Didymus, Ludo, or even Jareth and the game comes with well-crafted character pieces that can be painted if you so desire. This came would mainly appeal to fans of Labyrinth, young or old, of which there are now considerably more than in June 1986. By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)

Heads Talk Tails Walk (ThinkFun)

RRP: $14.99

Heads Talk Tails Walk is a game of animal pantomime and silly noises for preschool ages and up. You’ll stack a pile of animal bodies – the “tails” of the title – in the center of the table or floor, and then surround it with a pile of face-down “head” tiles, then take turns flipping the heads over in hopes of finding a match. If your flipped tile doesn’t match – let’s say, you’ve suddenly stuck a chicken’s head onto a frog’s body – you’ll have to act out what your new, hybrid critter might walk and sound like. (In this situation, you’d get up and hop like a frog while clucking like a hen.) This colorful game is a great way for a little one to get their sillies out – the same can be said for their parents, for that matter. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)



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