The 25 best board games to choose for Christmas gifts this year
by Jason Bailey and Sarah Pulliam Bailey
A board gaming renaissance is taking place around us. And if the Green Bay Packers are playing Settlers of Catan, chances are you at least know about the growing cultural obsession. Games make excellent gifts that promote camaraderie, storytelling and critical thinking.
Instead of watching yet another movie, pull your family and friends to the table and try a game. This is not an excuse to dust off your copy of Monopoly. Instead, check out Hanabi, an addictive cooperative game where you must give and receive clues wisely because you can see everyone’s cards except your own. If you prefer party games, try Dixit, where you describe a surreal piece of art with a word or phrase and the group picks what they think is the “right” one.
If you’ve exhausted our earlier list, check out these 25 games that also get our seal of approval:
Game of the Year
Colt Express: Control a robber who is racing to collect the most loot from a beautifully designed three-dimensional train. Play cards to “program” your character’s actions, then watch your best-laid plans get foiled as your fellow robbers try to punch, shoot and steal their way to victory.
$40, 3–6 players, 40 minutes, ages 8+
2015 Spiel des Jahres winner
Avalon: This excellent social deduction game is part of the larger Mafia and Werewolf family. Everybody has a hidden role and must figure out if each player is aligned with good or evil through votes, quests and contentious debates. Do you trust your brain or your heart?
$20, 5–10 players, 30 minutes, ages 12+
Codenames: Place 25 words in a grid and begin the verbal battle of wits. Team leaders must construct each clue so that only his or her team’s assigned words are chosen. Be extra careful: There is one word each round that, if selected, instantly loses the game for that team.
$20, 4–8 players, 15 minutes, ages 10+
Family card games
Sushi Go: This light drafting game has you collecting maki, sashimi and nigiri to make the most valuable meal. If you don’t have the time or brainpower for a round of Seven Wonders, this is the perfect replacement. But be warned: This one will undoubtedly make you crave a sushi run.
$15, 2–5 players, 15 minutes, ages 8+
Diamonds: This trick-taking game has a twist. Playing off-suit or winning a trick lets you perform a specific action corresponding with that suit. The goal is to collect the most diamond gems by placing them in your vault for safekeeping and stealing them from others’ showrooms.
$25, 2–6 players, 30 minutes, ages 8+
Parade: The Alice in Wonderland theme is purely cosmetic, but this set collection game will leave you with a Cheshire Cat-like grin if you can outsmart your opponents. Each card is worth negative points, but holding the majority in a color makes each of those worth only negative one.
$25, 2–6 players, 60 minutes, ages 10+
Arboretum: Plant trees to create scoring paths through your arboretum, but be judicious with your gardening. You’ll only score maples, for example, if you have the most maple points in your hand when the game ends. This is a true brain-burner, so don’t be lulled by the colorful artwork.
$20, 2–4 players, 30 minutes, ages 8+
Games younger kids can play (and by young, we mean 8)
Camel Up: Place bets on which camel will finish first or last in a race around the board. The wooden camels stack on top of each other and move based on dice rolls, which means almost anything can happen. Embrace the chaos, or use it as an opportunity to introduce probabilities.
$45, 2–8 players, 30 minutes, ages 8+
2014 Spiel des Jahres winner
Coconuts Duo: Fling tiny rubber balls — coconuts or poo, depending on your maturity level — into cups in an attempt to build a complete tower the fastest. This is a surprisingly joyous dexterity game for all ages, and a four-player version is also available.
$25, 2 players, 20 minutes, ages 6+
The Little Prince: Make Me a Planet: With artwork straight from the famous 1940s children’s book, this tile-laying game is perfect for families. Build a planet that meets the conditions (e.g. points for each lamp post) of your four scoring tiles while stopping others from doing the same.
$30, 2–5 players, 30 minutes, ages 8+
Qwirkle: Smash together Scrabble and Uno and you would get something like this Mensa award-winning tile-laying game. Add a tile to the board each turn, matching one of six different colors or six different shapes — but without duplicating any tiles in that row or column.
$35, 2–4 players, 45 minutes, ages 6+
2011 Spiel des Jahres winner
Timeline: Was Coca-Cola invented before or after the vacuum cleaner? Test your knowledge of history while placing cards along a timeline. The game gets harder as it progresses, with shorter and shorter gaps available between the events and inventions. Several expansions are available.
$15, 2–8 players, 30 minutes, ages 8+
Tokaido: This gorgeous Japanese-themed game is more serene journey than competitive endeavor, making it perfect for non-gamers. At each of your character’s stops, collect a card to score points in ways such as building picturesque landscapes or celebrate a filling meal.
$40, 2–5 players, 45 minutes, ages 8+
Light strategy games
Libertalia: In this pirate-themed role-selection game, each player has the same set of character cards but must decide the optimal time to use their abilities. You want to collect treasure maps and jewels without being stuck with the cursed relics! This can be a cutthroat game.
$50, 3–6 players, 45 minutes, ages 10+
Medieval Academy: Draft cards to move your pieces up tracks with unique scoring mechanisms. There is a surprisingly strong tension within: Are you happy with a few guaranteed knight points each round, or is it better investing into the dragon slayer that will only pay off at the end?
$40, 3–5 players, 30 minutes, ages 8+
Kingdom Builder: By the creator of Dominion, this area control game has you build a kingdom by choosing exactly where to place tiles of nine distinct terrain types. The three unique scoring conditions you are trying to meet change each game, so your strategy must evolve accordingly.
$60, 2–4 players, 45 minutes, ages 8+
2012 Spiel des Jahres winner
Istanbul: As a merchant in a Turkish bazaar, send your assistants to collect resources and sell them at markets with the ultimate goal of finding rubies. It’s important to plan the routes carefully in order to beat competing merchants to the valuable tiles without wasting actions.
$50, 2–5 players, 45 minutes, ages 10+
2014 Kennerspiel des Jahres winner
Heavy strategy games
The Castles of Burgundy: Create the most efficient colony of buildings, ships and animals by stringing together powerful actions. The easy part: Rolling two dice each turn. The hard part: Deciding which actions to take of the several at your disposal.
$40, 2–4 players, 60 minutes, ages 12+
Five Tribes: This is affectionately called meeple mancala because the number of pieces on a tile dictates how far the group can move. One piece is left behind at each stop, and the landing spot for the final one determines which action you can take in a race for victory points. Can be thinky.
$60, 2–4 players, 60 minutes, ages 12+
Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar: This list’s most difficult game is worker placement with a unique mechanic. Place or remove workers from gears that move each turn. The longer you wait to remove them, the stronger their ability, but your actions might not always align as planned.
$60, 2–4 players, 90 minutes, ages 12+
Elysium: Select cards aligned with Greek gods to build better sets than your opponents. Interesting combos are everywhere, and you must decide when to stop using a card’s special power so that it can be assigned to a set. Point denial is a legitimate strategy, so no hard feelings.
$60, 2–4 players, 60 minutes, ages 12+
2015 Kennerspiel des Jahres nominee
Alien Frontiers: Roll dice to determine what actions you may take in this space colonization-themed worker placement game. Unlock special powers while battling for control of territories, and slow down your opponents by stealing their resources or blocking their desired actions.
$60, 2–4 players, 90 minutes, ages 10+
Le Fantôme de l’Opéra: In this deduction game, one player is the investigator, who must identify which of the eight suspects — each with a different method of movement — is haunting the opera. One player is the phantom, who is trying to impede the investigation by causing chaos.
$40, 30 minutes, ages 8+
Hive: This thinky abstract game is a three-dimensional version of chess. Instead of pawns and knights, you control insects like ants and beetles. Each species has a different movement ability that you must use wisely to surround the opponent’s queen bee while protecting your own.
$30, 20 minutes, ages 8+
Morels: Foraging for mushrooms is certainly a unique theme, but to many the tension from this set-collection game will feel familiar. Faced with a limited hand size, you must decide when to sell your chanterelles for in-game bonuses or cook your shiitakes for victory points.
$25, 30 minutes, ages 10+
(Other entries on this list that play particularly well with two include Castles of Burgundy, Arboretum, Elysium, and Tzolk’in.)
7 Wonders: Leaders: If you enjoyed playing 7 Wonders, our previous choice for game of the year, this expansion adds another intriguing layer to your civilization building. Begin the game by drafting historical leaders who will require your hard-earned gold but in return will give you special rewards that can help craft your strategy. (The other expansions are also worth playing, but 7 Wonders: Cities offers too little and 7 Wonders: Babel offers too much.)
$30, 2–7 players, 40 minutes, ages 12+ (requires 7 Wonders to play)