Good Gift Games Greatest Hits

My 2011 Good Gift Games Guide will appear in The Morning News this Friday. In the meanwhile, I have updated my list of Good Gift Games Greatest Hits, a showcase of my 20 all-time most recommended easy-to-learn games.

In doing so I added nine new games to the list, replaced Wits and Wagers with Say Anything, and dropped Hoity Toity entirely (sorry H.T., you had a good run).

Most of the newcomers are titles from the last five years that have earned their place in the Hall of Fame. They are as follows.

* * *


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. 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.


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.

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.


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.

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.

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”.


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.


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.

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

Wither the Lovefest?

It’s not uncommon for me to abandon a project due to lack of interest. I am pretty sure the H. P. Lovefest is the first project I have ever abandoned due to abundance of interest, though.

Except for the part about abandonment. The original plan was for me to write an essay about Lovecraft for The Morning News, with a publication date of just before Halloween. While conducting research discovered that the 75th anniversary of the author’s death is next March, however, and decided to target the piece for then instead.

But then why stop posting here, you might ask? Well, the truth is that all my free time has, of late, been devoted to the various Lovecraftian into which I submerged myself. To wit:

  • I have been reading, for the first time, the Cthulhu Mythos stories written by those in the Lovecraft Circle; specifically, I have been working my way through this book, with The Atrocity Archives on deck.
  • My evenings have been spent engrossed in the video game Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, which I will review soon.
  • This year, for the first time, I served as the GM for the Halloween Call of Cthulhu game I participate in annually, and that took rather more preparation than I had expected. Keepin’ is hard!

So the H. P. Lovecraft will continue over the next few months, albeit on a more lackadaisical schedule than I had originally intended. Stay tuned.