So, the clocks have gone back and the nights have grown longer. In living rooms across the land (and all around the world) Christmas trees are appearing in corners, ready to be surrounded with presents as the festive season grows closer. As the hobby gets more and more popular, I’ve had a fair few people ask me what games I could recommend for them to buy as gifts for friends or family. This time of year sees a huge spike in the number of games bought, be they mainstream or designer. However, a lot of them are picked up by well meaning folks who are stuck for an idea and grab the first TV-branded title they see in the department store. More often than not they’re received with a half-smile and a muttered ‘thanks’, then consigned to the back of the cupboard. Hopefully these recommendations will see a few people realise that there’s more to games at Christmas than rebranded versions of Monopoly and Scrabble sets missing a handful of tiles.
2010 has seen some brilliant releases, but one great thing about games is that you don’t always have to have the latest to have a good time. That’s not to say that I won’t recommend new stuff, but the classics shouldn’t be overlooked. Gateway games like Settlers of Catan (collect and trade resources while building a network of towns), Ticket to Ride (create a rail network in the USA) and Carcassonne (lay tiles to build cities and roads) have stayed popular through the years for good reason – they’re all excellent games and ideal for introducing new players to something a little different to the norm. They show that it’s not all about rolling dice and moving a piece, plus their rules are so straightforward you’ll have no problem getting a game started in minutes. I’d also suggest adding the excellent Dominion to these standards. It’s a very quick playing game where you progressively build a deck of different types of cards in order to score the most points and is one of the most enduring releases in recent years.
If you’re after something to fire the imagination, you should look no further than the excellent Dixit. A beautifully designed game with a simple premise, your objective is to describe a card from your hand without being so obvious that your opponents guess which one it is from a selection. Ideal for any age, it’s won an array of awards since its release last year. For those who are looking for something that anyone can play, you can’t go wrong with North Star Games’ brilliant Wits & Wagers – it’s not about what you know, but what you think the other players know! You can gamble on who you think have the answers to questions, but if you’re averse to such vices there’s also the more child-friendly Family version. Both are great, especially with bigger groups. I should also mention Werewolf, with the Millers Hollow version being the most popular version (though there are plenty of others available). Half social experiment, half party game, it always makes for an entertaining experience, especially amongst groups of less-than-sober grown-ups!
Card games are great gifts, especially if they’re a bit different. From abstracts like Set and Fluxx to storytelling games such as Once Upon A Time or the delightfully miserable Gloom, they’re portable, easy to pick up and normally pretty quick to play. One of my favourites is Lost Cities, which is only for two players but is another great example of a gateway game. Also for two, there’s the incredible Summoner Wars – card based battling at it’s finest. If you fancy spending a little more money (and want something a bit bigger) there are great big-box card games around at the moment, many inspired by the previously mentioned Dominion. Of these, the best examples are Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer (reminiscent of collectible games like Magic: The Gathering but without the constant need to buy more cards) and Thunderstone, which is essentially a dungeon crawl in card form.
The most hyped games around at the moment will be trickier to get hold of but should you manage to acquire them you’ll have yourself a very happy gamer. Dungeons and Dragons: Castle Ravenloft is nigh on impossible to find at the moment, as is the wonderful Alien Frontiers (the current poster boy for the Kickstarter movement). If you manage to stumble across reasonably priced copies of either of them, get them immediately! On the flipside, every game store in the land should have copies of Agricola, Puerto Rico, Small World and Power Grid. These are a little deeper and more challenging than the average gateway title but are great to play nevertheless. Another recommendation is the excellent Lords of Vegas – definitely one to try if you’ve ever dreamed of being a high roller on The Strip.
For those who prefer their gaming less confrontational, there are plenty of co-operative games out there. If you feel like hunting for treasure, Forbidden Island is a beautifully produced adventure that’s also ideal for children. A more grown-up challenge is found in Pandemic as you attempt to save the world from virulent disease, or if a fantasy setting is more your thing you can always try out Defenders of the Realm. Meanwhile, more traitorous players can attempt to pretend to play nicely while trying to screw their friends over in Shadows over Camelot or Battlestar Galactica.
There are hundreds of games out there that I would be happy to recommend but the best thing to do is simply ask. If you’re lucky enough to have a shop in your area that stocks the kind of games mentioned here, the people behind the counter will be delighted to help you out. They’re called Friendly Local Game Stores for a reason! Failing that, online shops are there to assist too – most have a number you can call to speak to a real person who knows their stuff, and you’ll be supporting an independent retailer as well. The most important things though? It doesn’t matter where you get your games from: just try something out that’s a bit different. Have fun. And have a Happy Christmas, whatever you end up playing.