Why Christmas is the best time of the year to discover some great new board games

There's a huge variety of fantastic games available to keep you entertained into 2017 and beyond...

For many, board games will always be associated with childhood games of Monopoly and Cluedo, or maybe the occasional game of Articulate! at parties. But if you haven't been keeping track of what's happening in the world of board games, this Christmas is as good a time as any to start catching up.

It’s not hard to see why board games have become so appealing in 2016. When we all spend so much time staring at screens, there’s so much to be said about gathering a group of friends or family around the table for a few hours with few distractions. It’s a great social experience. While some games can be expensive to buy, you can conceivably get dozens if not hundreds of hours of play out of them - making them incredible value for money. The internet has also ensured you no longer have to rely on rule books (although you'll still need them) - you can always have a look at a YouTube playthrough to get an idea of how a game works.

It helps that the games themselves have evolved significantly. These days there are entire genres of games available, with everything from quick-to-learn party games to incredibly elaborate & complex games for enthusiasts. There are games that are extremely clever and games that are wonderfully silly; ones that are relaxed and ones that are intense; co-operative games and competitive ones. They increasingly come in all shapes and sizes - from small card-based games to massive ‘big box’ titles packed with gorgeous miniatures and massive boards.

There's really something for everything, and given many people have plenty of free time and social gatherings over the Christmas seasons there's no better time to dig in. Here’s a few suggestions to get you started.

Codenames

I don’t know if I’ve ever played a game that has won over a crowd so quickly. Easy to learn and quick to play, Vlaada Chvátil’s terrific party game splits the group into two teams. One player from each is appointed as the spymaster, and it is up to that player to try to communicate to their team who the ‘agents’ are in a grid of randomly selected codewords.

The twist is the spymasters can only communicate in single words and numbers (say for example ‘Animal 3’). It’s reminiscent in a way of Minesweeper, and the riskier spymasters are with their clues the more fun the game becomes. If that makes it sound complicated, it’s anything but, and despite the short game length it’s easy to lose a whole gaming night to this one.

As a bonus, it’s very cheap indeed. There’s also a newly-released Pictures variant if you want to mix things up. Cannot be recommended enough.

Pandemic Legacy

Most good modern games can make the hours fly by, but if you and your family & friends have plenty of free time over the Christmas and New Years then it’s worth considering Pandemic Legacy. Released last year to massive critical & player acclaim - it shot up to the number one spot on the popular Board Game Geek Top 100 list and has stayed there - this is a new take on the popular Pandemic co-op game, which has players attempting to battle global virus outbreaks. This time, though, it’s designed to be played through multiple times.

Set over 12 months - one or two games per month, depending how well you do - each ‘month’ introduces its own twists to the formula. As you play, you’ll open mystery boxes that introduce entire new mechanics, make permanent alterations to your board, destroy cards (yes, actually rip them up), level up - and potentially lose - your characters, and plenty more twists and surprises. We’ve only played as far as the April games and already our board & rulebook have changed significantly.

This massive game - which comes in a suitably big box full of teasing secret envelopes, cards and boxes - is a big commitment, but absolutely worth it. It’s been described as the ‘HBO of board games’, and it’s hard to dispute. Make sure to play a few standard games of Pandemic on your new board before digging into the ‘Legacy’ content - best to get used to the rules before the designers rip them up for you! The game is balanced for 2-4 players, but probably best played through with a team of 3 or 4. Best get started soon, as season 2 is on the way...

Werewolf

When there’s a big family gathering, what better way to connect than to form a lynch mob and accuse innocent villagers of being werewolves? That’s the magic of Werewolf, an immensely popular party game that works wonders when you have a big group together.

It’s a simple affair - one person narrates events, which are broken up into day & night cycles. Everybody is given a secret role. During the night, everybody closes their eyes - but the ‘werewolves’ in the group will awaken and choose their victims. During the day, everybody gathers together to accuse and ‘lynch’ the players they believe are werewolves - but of course innocent civilians could easily get in the way.

Always expect the unexpected in this game, as alliances form, suspicions increase, and the imaginary body count rises. Werewolf - also known as Mafia in some quarters, albeit with a few twists to the formula - is easy to adapt for different size groups (although more than 8 players is ideal), and different rulesets introduce all manner of different player roles to mix things up. It doesn’t have to cost a cent either - plenty of descriptions online, and it’s easy to make up your own ‘role cards’. You can buy boxed versions either. Whichever route you go, Werewolf is a blast.

Catan

Catan - previously known as Settlers of Catan - is often looked down upon by more enthusiast gamers. But for our money it remains one of the finest 'gateway games', along with other hits like Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne (two other fantastic games well worth considering).

Catan is the sort of game that offers a bit more complexity than the likes of Monopoly, but does so while remaining accessible. It introduces some of the concepts players are likely to encounter in more challenging games, but without becoming too intensive. The board is made up of a grid divided into five different resources. Players must, as the original title helpfully suggests, 'settle' by gathering resources and building. There's enough quirks to make each game surprising, and the rules encourage plenty of interaction through trade and temporary alliances.

With lots of expansion packs, you can easily add new life to the base game if you wish. Catan is particularly recommended as a way to start really digging into the variety of games out there - and it'll likely prove to be the sort of 'comfort food' game you'll return to regularly anyway.