Good Gift Games Greatest Hits

“What should I buy for my [buddy | cousin | colleague | warden | etc.], who likes playing games but doesn’t know much about them?”

As the Game Guru in my circle of acquaintances, I get asked that question a lot. And so, back in 2001, I began writing an annual “Good Gift Games Guide” (G4) and emailing it to friends and family every December. Knowing that the worst gift games are those that get put on a shelf and never played, the games featured in my guide generally met three broad criteria:

  • Easy to learn, with rules that can be explained in less than five minutes
  • Entertaining enough that even the guy who comes in dead last has a great time playing
  • Quick, lacking downtime, and requiring an hour or less to complete

Because I found myself recommending the same games years after year–Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Time’s Up, etc.–I shifted the focus of my G4 to new games when I began publishing it through The Morning News.

But those ol’ standbys are important to know as well. So here they are, the Greatest Hits of the Good Gift Games Guides. What they lack in newness (actual word! looked it up!) they more than make up for with their proven longevity and track record of appealing to those for whom modern board games are unknown territory.

In addition, here are some of the many, many other game lists I have compiled, which may help you pinpoint the perfect game for you or your group:

GGG Guide 2011
GGG Guide 2010 Ten Great “Two-Minute” Card Games
GGG Guide 2009 Large-Group Games
GGG Guide 2008 Friendship-Enders
GGG Guide 2007 Games For Two
GGG Guide 2006 Games For Kids
GGG Guide 2005 Tichu, and Other Climbing Games
GGG Guide 2004 Push-Your-Luck Games
GGG Guide 2003 Halloween Gaming Guide
GGG Guide 2002 Fantasy RPG Boardgames

And pretty much everything I’ve ever written about games for defective yeti can be found here.

Good Gift Games Greatest Hits

 

Ticket to Ride

Players: 2-5
Time: 45 minutes
Price: $50
Type: Family strategy
My Full Review: Here

Ticket to Ride went directly to the top of this list when it was released in 2004, and hasn’t been dislodged yet. Why? Because it’s familiar (much of the play is based on rummy), appealing (who doesn’t love trains?), easy to learn (figure five minutes for explaining the rules, tops) and competitive without being confrontational. If you already own Ticket to Ride, consider picking up the 1910 Expansion, which makes the game both more robust and more ergonomic (i.e., it gives you full-sized cards).


[Official site | Boardgame Geek | Amazon]

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Carcassonne

Players: 2-5
Time: 30 minutes
Price: $30
Type: Family strategy

A serene game in which player collaborate and compete to build a pastoral landscape full of roads, cities, farms, and monasteries. Since its release in 2002 a dizzying number of sequels and expansions for Carcassonne have been published, but the original remains a fine introduction to the series. One of those rare games that’s as accessible to kids as it is interesting to adults.


[Official site | Boardgame Geek | Amazon]

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Say Anything

Players: 4-7
Time: 30 minutes
Price: $30
Type: Party

After its release in 2005, Wits And Wagers quickly became my favorite party game. It held that distinction for three years, until the company behind it, North Star Games, introduced their newest title: Say Anything. One player is appointed the Judge in each round of Say Anything, and asks the group a question such as, “What’s the most important invention of the last century?” or, “Who is the most annoying celebrity in show business?” After everyone has jotted down their replies, players then bet on which answer the Judge will deem “Best”.  The “all players answer, all players bet” mechanism was taken straight from Wits and Wagers, but this implementation is slightly more to my liking.  Pick Wits and Wagers if you lean toward trivia games, Say Anything if you prefer party.


[Official site | Boardgame Geek | Amazon]

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Pandemic

Players: 2-4
Time: 45 minutes
Price: $35
Type: Family Strategy / Cooperative
My Full Review: Here

“In this game we are all epidemiologists, trying to synthesize vaccines to four deadly diseases that are rapidly spreading across the globe …” Oh my God, can you even imagine a less-enticing introduction to a board game? It sounds so soporific that you’d expect to find pillows and PJs in the box. And yet Pandemic, an engrossing (if stressful) family strategy game, has exactly this premise: travel the world, conduct research, and cure the virulent contagions that threaten mankind. As a cooperative game, Pandemic has the players working as a team, winning or losing as a group. And, like any good medical thriller, the tension in Pandemic builds geometrically: Halfway through you’ll be high-fiving each other over your presumed victory; 15 minutes later you’ll be sweating bullets as the situation grows increasingly dire. b>Also: Forbidden Island is by the same designer and uses the same central idea, but is easier to learn and easier to win. The former makes it more suitable for families; the latter, however, means that it will not challenge you for as long as Pandemic.


[Official Site | Boardgame Geek | Amazon]

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Dominion

Players: 2-4
Time: 30 minutes
Price: $45
Type: Card / Family Strategy

Every once in a while a game comes along that spurs an entire new genre of design. Such a game is Dominion, which spawned the latest craze of “deck building games”. Each player starts with an identical deck of ten cards, which they use to “buy” more cards, which they use to acquire yet more cards, until each has built up a formidable deck from practically nothing. This innovative system is complemented by the huge amount of options available: The game comes with 500(!) cards in total. It’s perfect for the recovering Magic: the Gathering addict on your list, or anyone who enjoys a quick card game with myriad of variability.


[Official Site | Boardgame Geek | Amazon]

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Bananagrams

Players: 1-8
Time: 15 minutes
Price: $15
Type: Word

Take Scrabble, distill it down to just the fun parts (i.e., remove the scoring and the downtime), and you are left with Bananagrams. Players receive 21 wooden tiles, each bearing a single letter, and simultaneously assemble them into a lattice of words. When a player has used all of his letters he yells, “peel,” whereupon everyone claims two more tiles from the central pool. When the pool is depleted, the first with no tiles left cries, “Bananas!” for the win. Playable in a quarter hour, portable in its stylish bananabag, Bananagrams allows you to scratch your cruciverbal-itch at the drop of a hat.


[Official Site | Boardgame Geek | Amazon]

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Lost Cities

Players: 2
Time: 30 minutes
Price: $25
Type: Card, two-player

My default recommendation for a two-player game, unless I know the person well enough to suggest something more specific–and even then it’s usually the one I advocate. Lost Cities is essentially rummy, but with a specialized deck and the tension-quotient set to overdrive. Despite its simplicity, I routinely cite it as one of my favorite games of all time.


[Official site | Boardgame Geek | Amazon]

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Small World

Players: 2-5
Time: 90 minutes
Price: $50
Type: Family Strategy / Light Wargame

Remember Risk?  Remember how fun it was?  Unless, of course, you got knocked out early, and had to watch Golden Girls reruns while the rest of the players staggered on to the finish line five hours later.  Imagine all the fun of Risk, but with no player elimination and a system that guaranteed that every game would play out different.  Or better yet, stop imagining and pick up Small World.  Each player adopts a unique civilization composed of a random race and a random class, which can give rise to Commando Halflings and Diplomat Skeletons.  He then marches his tribe across a fantasy landscape, snapping up provinces and giving the previous inhabitants the heave-ho.  Small World allows you to watch the rise and fall of civilizations in a civilized time-frame of only 90 minutes.


[Official Site | Boardgame Geek | Amazon]

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No Thanks!

Players: 3-5
Time: 15 minutes
Price: $10
Type: Card
My full review: Here

On your turn you do one of two things:  take the face-up card (and all the chips on it), or place a chip onto the face-up card and pass.  You now know all the rules to No Thanks!. Except for scoring that is, and the scoring is what makes this game shine. Each player receives points equal to the value of the cards he took minus the number of chips he owns, with the lowest score winning.  So ask yourself: how many chips will a card need before you are willing to take it?  You will agonize over that question for the 15 minute running time of No Thanks!–and then another 15 minutes, and then another, as you and your group keep playing “just one more”.


[Official Site | Boardgame Geek | Amazon]

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Time’s Up

Players: 4-18
Time: 90 minutes
Price: $30
Type: Party

Forty cards bearing the name of someone famous–Pythagoras or Luke Skywalker or Johnny Appleseed–form a central draw pile, and players split into teams of two. On a turn you draw cards from the central pile and frantically strive to get their partner to guess the indicated name. In the first round you can say anything: “This is the guy who came up with the famous theorem stating that the square of two sides of a right-angle triangle is equal to the square of the hypotenuse…”.  In the second round the teams use the exact same set of forty cards, but now you are constrained to a single word (“hypotenuse!”). In the third and final round, you cannot say anything, and must rely entirely on gesture (*pantomime of a triangle*). Time’s Up has a slow-build to hilarity, with a long first round, a pedestrian second, and a third that unfailingly leaves everyone in stitches.


[Official site | Boardgame Geek | Amazon]

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BANG!

Players: 4-7
Time: 30 minutes
Price: $20
Type: Card / Party

Who will rule the West: the Sheriff and his deputies or the outlaws? Players are randomly assigned to one side or the other, but the composition of the teams begin a secret. Want to know who is on your side? Shoot someone and see how they react. BANG! is a clever variation on the traditional game of Werewolf, works best with a group of six or seven people, and has no shortage of expansions to keep things fresh.


[Official Site | Boardgame Geek | Amazon]

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The Settlers of Catan

Players: 3-4
Time: 90 minutes
Price: $42
Type: Family strategy

The game that launched the “German board game” craze of the mid-90s. Each players owns a small settlement on a island, and strives to become the dominant civilization by constructing roads, building cities, amassing armies, and raising sheep (yes, sheep). Trade is the key to success, as players may freely swap the natural resources they harvest; because these transactions can happen at any point during the game, every player is engaged all the time, even when it’s not their turn. A marvel of elegant game design.


[Official site | Boardgame Geek | Amazon]

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Slide 5

Players: 3-10
Time: 30 minutes
Price: $8
Type: Card

Curiously, many of the most enjoyable games are also those that are the most agonizing. Slide 5 (previously called Category 5 and, before that, Take 6!) is a prefect example. The deck contains cards numbered from 1 to 104. Every round begins with each person playing a card from his hand face down. After all are revealed simultaneously, the cards are added to rows in the center of the table in ascending numerical order. But if your card winds up as the sixth in a row, you take the other five as points–and you don’t want points. I’ve been playing this one for about a decade, and still enjoy every game. Also: Turn The Tide is a similar game with a few more rules and a smidge more strategy.


[Official site | Boardgame Geek | Amazon]

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Thebes

Players: 2-4
Time: 45 minutes
Price: $60
Type: Family strategy

Players divide their time between Europe, where they conduct research and listen for rumors of fabled riches, and the Mediterranean, where they excavate archeological sites in search of treasure. In a novel twist, time is literally money in Thebes: Each player is given 52 weeks at the start of a year-long round, and must decide how to best spend them amongst study, travel, digging up artifacts, and putting on exhibits. Ironic, that a game stressing the importance of doing your homework could be such a blast. Goes great with a fedora and the Raiders of the Lost Ark soundtrack.


[Official site | Boardgame Geek | Amazon]

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Transamerica

Players: 2-6
Time: 30 minutes
Price: $30
Type: Family strategy
My full review: here

It’s so simple it’s just barely a game, but it’s lots of fun nonetheless. Players are randomly assigned five cities on a stylized map of the United States, and spend their turns building railroad track in an effort to connect their burgs. But because no one “owns” any given stretch of track, you can link into your opponent’s network and use it to further your own goals. A typical game takes half an hour and can be played by persons of all ages and game-aptitude.


[Official site | Boardgame Geek | Amazon]

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Blokus

Players: 2-4
Time: 20 minutes
Price: $25
Type: Abstract / two-player

Blokus is one of those abstract games that even people who profess to hate abstract games (such as myself) wind up loving. Players place plastic pieces (alliteration!) onto a grid in accordance with a simple law: newly placed pieces must be diagonally adjacent (and only adjacent) to previously placed pieces of the same color. That one rule, along with the variety of differenly sized and shaped pieces, makes for a tense game of control, as you wall off territory with the goal of leaving your opponent with no possible moves. Go play a few games of Blokus online and see for yourself. The original Blokus plays up to four, and is suitable for kids as young as seven; if you are looking for a two-player version, check out Blokus Duo instead.


[Official Site | Boardgame Geek | Amazon]

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Zooloretto

Players: 2-5
Time: 45 minutes
Price: $45
Type: Family strategy
My Full Review: here

Congratulations on your new zoo! Now all you need to do is rustle up some animals. Not to fear: Trucks bearing kangaroos, flamingos, gorillas, and five other types of fauna are yours for the taking. In fact, your problem isn’t lack of animals, but too many of them; if you can’t fit all the critters into your enclosures, the remainders are relegated to the barn, and will count as negative points at the end of the game. Complicating all this are your opponents, who will be more than happy to lob elephants your way–doubly so if you have nowhere to put them. Zooloretto won the Spiel Des Jahres (“Game of the Year”) award, and is routinely cited as one of the best family games around.


[Official site | Boardgame Geek | Amazon]

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Incan Gold

Players: 3-8
Time: 20 minutes
Price: $20
Type: Card / Party / Push-Your-Luck

Two men enter, one man leaves! Or, in the case of Incan Gold, as many as eight explorers enter a perilous temple in search of jewels, and one by one flee in terror as they encounter snakes, mummies, and rock slides. Those who get out before catastrophe strikes keep the booty they amassed; those that push their luck too far wind up with nothing. One of the simplest game on this list but also one of the most tense, Incan Gold packs all the anxiety of a two-hour suspense film into a tidy 20-minute package


[Official Site | Boardgame Geek | Amazon]

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Apples to Apples

Players: 4-10
Time: 30 minutes
Price: $30
Type: Party

The Judge turns over an adjective card, like “Soft” or “Respectable;” everyone else slaps down Noun cards from their hands as quickly as possible. The Judge then decides which played card best matches his own–if the description is “Slimy,” will he select “Frog,” “Used Car Salesman,” or “Bill Clinton”? Perhaps the most accessible and laughter-inducing party game I’ve ever played!


[Official site | Boardgame Geek | Amazon]

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San Juan

Players: 2-4
Time: 45 minutes
Price: $30
Type: Card / Two-players
My Full review: here

Your goal: construct the town of San Juan, capital of Puerto Rico. Every card in the deck is a building, each with its own unique ability. To put a building into play, simply place it in front of you, and then discard additional cards from your hand equal to it’s price. A light “civiliation” game (i.e., one where you start with little and slowly build up your infastructure), it is one of those rare multi-player games than actually works great with only two.


[Official site | Boardgame Geek | Amazon]

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4 comments.

  1. We would thoroughly recommend Galaxy Truckers. What’s not to like – build a space ship and then have the Universe throw a whole pile of trouble at you.

    If we were drinkers it would be a fantastic drinking game… But sober with the right group of people it is great fun

  2. [...] you are looking to get your family started on games beyond the traditional Hasbro/Mattel fare this list from blogger Matthew Baldwin is a great place to start. I have played all of these and own most of them. They are [...]

  3. Great list of games, great photos, great short-&-easy explanations! I’ve posted a link on my site at http://www.thebiggamehunter.com.

  4. Citadels!

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