The festive season is a time to come together, when we reconnect with our loved ones and inexplicably decide to eat turkey and drink mulled wine. It is also unfortunately a time of terrible Dr Who specials and Cluedo, so how about something a bit more engaging after Christmas lunch.
A good family game has to meet some exacting standards. Most of the players will be novices so it can’t be too complicated, also you will likely be blitzed on sherry (or whatever it is young people drink nowadays) . Also to keep people engaged short turns help or turns where everyone does their actions together, and games that have people talking and laughing are going to rank highly.
In the tradition of so many Buzzfeed articles I’ve put together a top ten of the games best suited to the hazy period post Christmas lunch. As a rule only games I’ve played can make the list but there are plenty of games I’m keen to check out that might make a future list.
Eketorp is about at the limit in terms of complexity for a game I would still recommend for newcomers to board games. It does have a lot of bits and is fairly pricey, but this is made up for by being just so funny. In Eketorp you each play groups of Vikings trying to gather material to build a castle, but since there won’t be enough to go round first you have a massive punch up. The combat system is a little unintuitive but still simple enough, and the feeling of building your castle up only to see it torn down is very compelling. If you’re feeling ambitious Eketorp might be worth a shot.
For a more sedate experience I would recommend Splendor, a very pretty economic game for 2-4 players set in renaissance Italy. Splendor is fortunately very simple, players can take only one of four actions per turn and it is very satisfying to watch your economic engine grow allowing you to accelerate your progress. While its simplicity is helpful it is a very quiet game with players focused on their own plans since playing well requires a fair bit of brainpower.
If I were to describe Dixit in one word, that word would be French. Dixit is a very odd game, stuffed full of beautiful and sometimes confusing art. Each round one player describes one of their cards, then the other players choose a card they think fits the descriptions, earning points if people thing theirs was the original card. This game can be a double edged sword, for the right group it can bring out some good banter but the pressure to be creative might be too much for some. I would say play this game with at least 4 people so if your family is particularly creative then pick it up.
7. Exploding Kittens
Exploding Kittens is very funny, but not so much because of the card art where I’d say the game tries too hard. It is a fairly simple game about building up a hand of action cards so you can use them to avoid the deadly exploding kitten cards hidden somewhere in the draw deck. The slow build up followed by a flurry of action as one player realises they might be doomed allows the game to reach a climax before anyone gets too bored. Seeing the other players’ or your own desperation is where the game creates its funniest moments.
6. Survive: Escape from Atlantis
I’ve played Survive a lot and use it as my gateway game to get people into games that have a big board and lots of pieces, rather than just a few cards. Survive is really brutal with most of your people dying, ravaged by sharks and sea monsters. But the way control of the sea creatures alternates allows you to be merciful or vindictive, depending on which family members you don’t mind hating you. Another point in Survive’s favour is its excellent playing pieces, from its adorable sharks and whales, to the island itself with different terrain types giving a real sense of height. Survive is a classic for 2-4 players but can go up to 6 with the expansion, I’d recommend survive to absolutely anyone but having played it a lot the shine has worn off for me which prevents it from climbing higher.
5. Formula D
Formula D should be terrible, its a racing game where you move by rolling dice. But rolling dice is still a very enjoyable thing in the right context, and these are some of the best dice out there, becoming bigger and bigger as you gear up. The game also has interesting decision points as you have to be careful to slow down for corners. It does have a few drawbacks, it is physically quite large and longer than some of the other games on this list. If your family has a formula one fan in it then that always helps (Is Rubens Barrichello still doing stuff?), but it’s still a good time if not.
4. Cash & Guns
For a very silly game definitely check out Cash & Guns, waving foam pistols in each other’s faces is a factually better Christmas evening than monopoly. Not knowing if the bullets in the other players’ guns are real or fake makes the stakes more interesting, and pointing a gun at your mum or dad is at least going to lead to conversation afterwards Everyone takes their turns together so there’s no deer in the headlights moment when the new players have to get through their turn not knowing what to do. It does require at least 4 players though, and ideally around 6, so if you can’t get that many people then maybe give this one a miss, otherwise you’ll have a blast.
3. Love Letter
Love Letter has the same kind of appeal as Exploding Kittens, a small simple card game with a little bit of deduction but comes up slightly stronger for me. Love Letter is really quick, a full game taking maybe half a hour at most, and incredibly simple. All you do is draw a card then play a card, but there’s still plenty of thinking to do based on what has been played before and how your opponents are acting. Also the art is really nice and it’s dirt cheap so just go buy it.
Codenames is the natural successor to games like charades or Pictionary, but beefed up to 12. Players are divided into two teams facing a grid of words, only the team captain can see a sheet saying if those words count for their own or the other team. The captains then give one word clues hinting to one or more of the words on the grid. That’s it, and yet managed to be one of my favourite games this year. The rage of the captains staring at their idiot team who can’t see what was obvious to them, and the confusion the teams feel towards the person talking like a mad person are both incredible. One drawback that prevents Codenames from taking first place is it does require a large player count, at the very least 6 but more likely 10 or so.
While I love Netrunner more than my hypothetical firstborn, it’s not exactly a game for everyone. Skull, on the other hand is one of the best introductions to board games. It has no trouble getting a fantasy or sci-fi theme past apprehensive relatives, the tiles are chunky and are enjoyable to just hold, and it’s one of the simplest games out there. You are betting how many flowers you can find among the tiles on the board without hitting any skulls. Within this framework there’s actually a lot you can do and you end up playing with your family psychologically not just mechanically. Skull also scales incredibly well going from two players to as many as you have sets for (and making your own is fairly easy). Skull isn’t necessarily my favourite game or the best game ever, but it earns the top of this list because of just how universal it is.
Skull coming out on top doesn’t make the other games on this list any lesser, if you think one of the others suits your family better then by all means go for it. And, if it’s a total disaster? Well that’s what Christmas is about.