With the holiday season fast approaching, you might soon find yourself sequestered with many distant relatives and few safe topics to talk about. Eventually someone is going to reach for a crusty copy of Monopoly, Clue, or Life to keep things light -- but in our current golden age of board games, there are plenty of fresh alternatives to those dusty old titles. We've selected a dozen alternative to the "classics": newer board games that show off the limitless possibilities of the tabletop experience.
And because you'll be gaming with people whose past board-game experience may not go beyond putting plastic hotels on Marvin Gardens, the 12 picks below are "gateway games," meaning they are just simple enough to snag the attention of someone new to the sport. The games have been listed in order from least complicated to most complicated, to make sure anyone can play along.
Objective: Bluff your way to victory: play your "skull" and "rose" discs facedown in front of you while betting on how many discs you can turn over without revealing any skulls. The first player to earn two victories -- or the last player standing after everyone else is eliminated -- wins. Number of Players: 2–6 How Much Space You Need to Play: Not much -- even the smallest coffee table will get the job done. Why It's Fun: Skull is just poker with all those pesky rules stripped away, leaving a roughly 20-minute game of bluffing, raw nerve, and palpable tension. Because the game is so simple, it's not about understanding systems, but about understanding the people around the table instead. With Skull, every decision rests on social dynamics: how well do you know the person across from you, and how well can you read his intentions? And since each quick round either ends in sudden victory or crushing defeat, this is one of the most exciting games you can bring to the table.
Objective: Pitch the best product or service to the rotating "customer" player using two cards from your hand. Create an outlandish pitch to appeal to the identity card (teacher, politician, funeral home director, vampire, etc.) your opponent has drawn. Number of Players: 3–10 How Much Space You Need to Play: You don't even need a table as long as everyone is comfortable. Why It's Fun: Snake Oil is one of the funniest card games available right now, and it accomplishes that while maintaining a PG rating. A clever alternative to Cards Against Humanity, it's as squeaky-clean or crass as you want it to be, relying on players to tailor their responses based on what everyone around the table finds funny. The result is a silly comedy game that you can play with parents and children and drunk buddies alike. More important, it values creativity and improvisation, demanding that you create your own jokes rather than rely on prewritten punch lines. A certain level of shamelessness helps to play Snake Oil well, but part of the appeal is watching you friends and family rise to the occasion.
Objective: Win the most points after three rounds. In Round 1, players have to get their team to guess the name on their cards using any words except the name itself. In Round 2, the same cards are used but the main player can only use a single word to describe each card. In Round 3, the same cards are brought out again but only wordless gestures can be used. Number of Players: 4–20 How Much Space You Need to Play: Enough space to accommodate however many people are playing -- no table necessary. Why It's Fun: The ultimate icebreaker, Monikers is a surefire hit and may be the purest party game ever made. While it borrows bits and pieces from other games, it ends up topping them all thanks to the above-the-table metagame it encourages. Since the same selection of cards (taken at random from a massive selection) is continuously recycled, players grow familiar with the deck and the game constantly changes the rules, forcing everyone to adapt. Players create inside jokes and shorthand that almost always gets co-opted by the other team, making each Monikers session a custom comedy creation of the people playing. This is the only game I've seen someone lose because they couldn't stop laughing.
Objective: Be the first team to discover which words in a grid of 25 cards belong to you. One player is the spymaster, who knows which words belong to his team via a secret reference card, and can only give one-word clues to his teammates. Since they're in a race against the other team, the spymaster must attempt to leap ahead by stringing together multiple cards under one word. For example, the spymaster can tell his team "Spanish 2," hoping they'll look over the grid and select "flu" and "rice." Number of Players: 2–8, but 4 is ideal How Much Space You Need to Play: A small table will get the job done. Why It's Fun: Just when you thought word-association games couldn't do anything new, Codenames shatters the mold. With its amusing espionage theme and clever word selection, it's one of the most well-produced small-box board games on the market. It's two games in one: for the spymasters, it's a game of looking at the cards you want your team to guess and coming up with that one perfect word that ties them all together; for everyone else, it's a game of taking a vague clue your idiot friend somehow thought was good and trying to use it to win. And it's an unbearably tense experience for everyone, as one wrong move could lead to a point for the other team… or even an instant game-over. This is a light word game that's as intense as any action movie.
Objective: Work together to build the most impressive fireworks display possible. Players hold their cards backwards, meaning you can see everyone's cards except your own. On each turn, a player can share one piece of information with someone else (the color or suit of a card) or play a card to the center of the table, trying to play the numbered suits in the correct order. Number of Players: 2–5 How Much Space You Need to Play: A surface of some kind, but nothing huge. Why It's Fun: Few cooperative games -- where every player is on the same team and works to defeat the game itself -- are as satisfying as Hanabi. You're all in this thing together, winning or losing as a group. Hanabi is a low-key experience, valuing logic, clear decision-making, and understanding what to say at the right time. Because the rules limit how much can be said at a given moment, no single player can "quarterback" the game and attempt to run the whole thing for the other players. You must rely on your teammates to make the right decision. The result is a game of miraculous highs and hilarious lows: you cheer every right decision, groan at every botched move, and want to play again immediately when the game is over because surely everyone is going to get it right this time.
Objective: Discern which players at the table are the secret fascists who have infiltrated the government… and eliminate the secret Hitler, whose election to the chancellorship leads to instant victory. Or if you're on the other side, protect the secret Hitler and ensure a fascist takeover of the government. Number of Players: 5–10 How Much Space You Need to Play: A medium-sized table. Why It's Fun: If you can swallow the dark subject matter (note that the game avoids all Nazi imagery, depicting Hitler and his fascist cronies as monsters and dinosaurs), Secret Hitler is the best social deduction game ever made. The "fascist" players are outnumbered by the "liberal" players, but only the fascists know each other's true identities. While Secret Hitler has a simple structure to follow, with players electing new leadership every round to help suss out the secret loyalties of the people around the table, it's really a game about talking: knowing what to say and how and when to say it is key. Players who are bad at lying to their friends might have a hard time, but those who don't mind a little deceit and a lot of smooth-talking (and maybe some exasperated screaming) can't do any better than this.
Objective: Win the most money at the end of the camel race, with players betting on overall winners, losers, and who will finish in first at the end of each leg. The camels move through a cleverly designed dice tower that randomly determines order and speed, forcing players to predict just how far and how fast they will move. Number of Players: 2–8 How Much Space You Need to Play: A large table, especially if you're playing with more than four players. Why It's Fun: Players have no control over the camel race they're attending; they make their fortune through risky gambling, and sometimes have to watch a surefire victory turn into a crushing defeat so against the odds that you want to weep. You can attempt to influence the race and maneuver the odds at each turn, but nothing is certain, so the game rewards logical thinking (you can read the board and make a sound judgment on which camel to put money on). Still, it swings so hard and so fast that dreams can be shattered in an instant. Watching one friend's carefully considered strategy blow up in their face is as much fun as actually winning.
Objective: Get the most points and the most powerful civilization at the end of three "ages," with each player drafting cards to create a strong military, build great works, and achieve the most scientific discoveries. Number of Players: 2–7 (best with 3 or more) How Much Space You Need to Play: You'll need a pretty big table for this one, as each player will have a sprawling tableau of cards and cardboard to deal with. Why It's Fun: The tabletop gaming world has no shortage of civilization-building games, where players assemble dueling empires and battle for social, scientific, and cultural control. The genius of 7 Wonders is that it takes that epic sprawl, reduces it to 30 minutes, and encases it in an ingeniously simple card-drafting system that requires each player to make a single decision every turn. Naturally, this means each one is vital -- do you take a card that will benefit you right now, or keep a card that will benefit someone else at the table? Because whatever cards you do not draft on a given turn are passed to the next player at the table, meaning that you know exactly which cards your opponents have access to. The only roadblock for some players is the game's use of symbology over text, which requires everyone to learn how to "read" the game before they can master it. However, 7 Wonders plays fast, and most first-time players will see everything click into place by the end of their introductory game.
Objective: Hunt Jack the Ripper through the streets of London over the course of four tense nights, attempting to locate his hideout and trap him. Or if you're playing as Jack the Ripper, avoid the cops on your tail, commit your ugly crimes, and make it back home before the sun rises. Number of Players: 2–6 How Much Space You Need to Play: While the game isn't sprawling, the board itself is fairly large and will require a sizable table. Why It's Fun: Do you know what it feels like to be hunted? Or what it feels like to hunt? Letters from Whitechapel is a one-against-all game, with one player attempting to flee from the others as the infamous murderer Jack the Ripper, tracking their movements on a hidden pad of paper and enjoying the baffled looks on the faces of those playing the cops in pursuit. The genius of the game is that the Jack player begins the game with a great deal of power, armed with special ability tokens and the assurance that no one else at the table knows where he's going. But that changes quickly -- with each passing moment and each discovery of where Jack has been, the cops can start to predict where this criminal mastermind will flee next. As they grow more powerful, Jack grows weaker and increasingly desperate. There are few tabletop experiences as intense as playing Jack in Letters from Whitechapel, and likewise, few experiences as rewarding as being on the cop team that catches the bastard.
Objective: Be the most powerful Roman trading company in the Mediterranean by building a well-rounded network of supplies. Though the real victory comes from pleasing the gods, represented by cards that will supply enough victory points to trump even the most intimidating stack of coins. Number of Players: 2–5 How Much Space You Need to Play: You need room for the board and a cardboard tableau for every player, so a large table is best. Why It's Fun: Ladies and gentlemen, meet the new Settlers of Catan. Concordia is as close to perfect as strategic Euro-games get. It's easy to learn but hard to master, with a simple system that offers dozens of complex different ways to play. The game refuses to reward complacency, utilizing a modular system that changes the layout of the board every round; even the theme, which seems so dry at first, ends up rewarding players who embrace it. Plus, Concordia is ruthlessly fair: there's no dice, no luck; just you, the board, a streamlined set of rules, and a handful of other players who exist on even ground. When you win, you can bask in the glow of a well-deserved victory. When you lose, you know exactly why and cannot blame a bad roll or someone else's unfair advantage. Concordia is confident enough to trust your intelligence, which is rare for any game.
Objective: Sink the other team's submarine before they can sink yours, with each member of your team taking on a unique role vital to the sub's survival. Number of Players: 2–8 (best with 8) How Much Space You Need to Play: Break out the table extensions: this one is going to eat up as much surface space as you can offer. Why It's Fun: Captain Sonar is the ultimate battle of wits and grit, pitting two teams against each other in a nerve-racking fight to the death. One player is the captain of the sub, who controls its direction and marks every movement with with a dry-erase marker (included) on his map. One is the radio operator, who listens to the opposing captain to mark the enemy sub's movements and attempt to determine its location. One is the chief mate, who prepares and deploys the necessary weapons. One is the engineer, who holds the sub together because every action damages it in some way. Both teams are divided by a large screen, so they can hear but not see everything the other side is doing. And here's the kicker: the game is played in real time. There are no turns; the team that works faster, communicates better, and has their act together will win. Watch as one captain buckles under the stress and turns his submarine straight into a mine! Despair as you discern the exact location of the enemy… only to realize that the chief mate doesn't have a torpedo ready! Captain Sonar is one of the most dramatic board games you will ever play, offering a downright cinematic experience.
Dead of Winter
Objective: Work together to survive the zombie apocalypse. Players scavenge for food and supplies to keep their colony alive... while enduring zombie attacks... and battling frostbite... and keeping morale in check... and accomplishing a larger group goal... and accomplishing a secret personal goal that may put you at odds with the other players. (Unless that secret personal goal involves betraying everyone else at the table and destroying the colony, because that's totally a thing that can happen.) Number of Players: 2–5 (best with 3+) How Much Space You Need to Play: There is a lot of cardboard packed into this game, so you'll need a fair amount of table to get set up. Why It's Fun: There is no shortage of zombie board games out there, but Dead of Winter is the best of the bunch. Yes, you can arm yourself with weapons and kill a bunch of the walking dead, but that is rarely the point of the game. Dead of Winter is a cooperative game, where everyone needs to work together if they want to make it through a snowy post-apocalypse and see the spring. That means constant communication… which means constant arguing. That means tracking down the supplies you need to survive… which means desperate and brazen missions into the unknown. And since one player at the table may be a traitor secretly working to undermine the entire survival effort, trust is hard to come by. How do you survive an impossible situation when no one is able to trust the others? Dead of Winter dramatizes this conflict, placing an emphasis on difficult decisions rather than violence and action.
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