It’s that time of the year again. It may be cold & dark, but you have that extra bit of free time with family & friends.
Yes, it’s Christmas, and it’s the best time of the year to settle down with some board games. The last few years have seen an exciting resurgence in tabletop games, with designers pushing things well beyond old favourites like Monopoly or Cluedo.
Take a trip to a specialist board game shop or online store now and you’ll be greeted with a dizzying array of games - from clever little card games to massive ‘legacy’ titles designed to be played repeatedly over the course of months. YouTube videos, meanwhile, mean you can get a grasp of the basics of different games without having to spend an hour buried in a rulebook (although you will still need it nearby!).
Even if you haven’t given a second thought to board games since you were a kid, it’s well-worth considering one of the many great modern games as a fun and very social way to spend the long winters’ evenings and beyond. Here’s just four suggestions to keep you started, but there’s 100s more for those willing to take a dive into an increasingly vast & diverse hobby...
Pandemic Legacy (Seasons 1 + 2)
Most good modern games can make the hours fly by, but if you and your family & friends have plenty of free time then it’s worth considering getting a start on Pandemic Legacy. The first ‘season’ was released in 2015 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.
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.
And if you get hooked? Well, season 2 was released a few months ago. It’s a major but exciting change from the first, presenting players with a smaller map that they will expand as the game progresses. A more radical departure from the original Pandemic game, it’s a good opportunity to lose another few dozen hours in an intricate, ever-surprising board game...
Talk about a good first impression. Scythe - from talented designer Jamey Stegmaier and illustrator Jakub Rozalski - instantly impresses with its stunning box art, capturing an alternate 1920s Europe occupied by giant cyberpunk robots. The sense of artistry carries over to when you open the lavish box - full of beautifully drawn cards, high-quality materials and a collection of cool plastic figurines.
Thankfully the game itself lives up to the lavish production values. It’s a sort of conquest game, in which players attempt to gain and secure control of as much map territory as they can. It’s full of clever quirks and systems - such as an ‘upgrade’ system that allows players to decrease the cost of key actions, or the encounter cards that add a neat ‘choose your own adventure’ flourish to exploring the map. Yes, there’s giant mech combat, but fighting can be as risky as it can be rewarding...
Scythe is unquestionably a tad more complex than some more familiar board games, but it’s also surprisingly intuitive once you get the hang of it. What’s particularly great is how much replay value is in there - the different factions and abilities can massively alter your approach to the game. The standard game allows for five players, but the Invaders From Afar expansion can bring that up to seven - adding two new factions that can also provide even more variety for veteran players. A second expansion - The Wind Gambit - was released this month, and adds airships and various new rules to the base game.
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 a more social version 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 'Pictures' variant - which can be combined with the words version - if you want to mix things up, as well as a co-operative ‘Duet’ version. Whatever version you go with, this cannot be recommended enough.
And now for something completely different. Dixit is based primarily around a set of beautifully drawn yet purposely surreal & ambiguous cards. Each turn, one player is the ‘storyteller’. That player chooses one of their cards and - without revealing it to the others - makes up a sentence about it. Each player than selects one card that could match the story. Once every players has chosen a card, they’re mixed up and revealed to the group. Everyone then guesses which card was the storyteller’s.
The twist is the clever scoring system: the storyteller wants some players to guess the correct card, but not all players. It’s about finding some sort of compromise between an obscure answer and an obvious one. The other players, meanwhile, want others to guess their card so they can rack up bonus points. In play, there’s some similarities to the popular Cards Against Humanity - but whereas that primarily rewards the crassest humour, this is a more family-friendly and imaginative offering.
Like many modern games, there are several expansions for those who find themselves particularly captivated by Dixit and its dream-like artstyle.