Category: board games

Five Holiday Board Game Recommendations

It’s that time of year. The time when you start to scramble to come up with gift ideas for people. If you’re an avid gamer, I’m probably not going to have any suggestions here that you haven’t already heard. But if you’re more casual, then I’d like to think there might be some things here that are worth your while.

These are games that are great for families. They’re not overly complex. I find myself drawn more and more these days to games that don’t need thick rule books. Nothing you have to keep checking again and again. They’re games I can play with my kids and have a great time.

Note that each link will take you to the Amazon page for the product. If you buy it, I receive a kickback from Amazon, but the games themselves haven’t paid for my endorsement or anything like that. (I wish!)

First up has got to be Splendor. It’s a fantastic board game that takes less than a half hour to play. It’s easy enough to grasp that my nine year old can compete with the rest of us and have a great time. You play the role of a gem trader, trying to leverage your wealth to get fame and fortune. It’s got quality components and basic rules that have enough nuance to give some deep strategy to the game. I would get this for just about anyone. Great stuff.

Hanabi is a cooperative card game where you play with your hand facing away from you. Other people can see what you have, but you can’t. You are all trying to make a fantastic fireworks display. Once again, it’s straightforward, easy to learn, and fun to play. Kids can do well with it too. Better yet, it’s small, so it’s really easy to pack for a trip. You need someplace quiet to play it, but other than that, you’re good to go anywhere.

Seven Wonders has been out for quite some time. It’s more complex than the others. More fiddly bits. It’s a drafting game, which means you’re dealt cards at the beginning of each round. You pick one, then pass the rest on to the next person, who does the same, so you’re making a series of decisions, picking the cards you think will let you build the best empire. Fun, and fairly straightforward once you learn how to play.

Tomas got this during the holidays last year. Sushi Go! looks deceptively cutesy, which is its really only downside. He wasn’t convinced he wanted it at first, but after we’d played a few rounds, he could easily see the appeal. You’re trying to make the best sushi meal you can over three rounds, using the drafting mechanic. Way easy to learn, fast to play, and surprisingly strategic. Plus, it’s cheap.

In Codenames, a bunch of cards are dealt out face up in a grid at the start of the game. Each card has a word or two written on it. You then have to give single word clues to get your team to guess only the cards you want them to. I’ve only played this twice so far, but it falls right in the sweet spot for easy to learn and fun to play.

Board Game Review: Betrayal at House on the Hill

For Christmas, I got the family a few board games. (Yes, even though I already have about 2 closets’ worth. You can never have too many board games, folks. Just don’t ask my wife.) But of course, since we’re all busy, it’s taken some time to actually getting around to playing them. Sunday evening, we corrected that. First up? Betrayal at House on the Hill.

So it’s got a bit of a strange name. It scoffs at things like simple grammar. I bought this one because I’d heard it was a classic in the cooperative/competitive vein: you start out the game all being on the same side, and then at some point, one of you betrays the other, and from then on, it’s everyone vs. the traitor to see who wins. It’s a mechanic I loved in Battlestar Galactica, and this was supposed to be a sleeked down, simpler version of that.

Sign me up.

Our first game was a five player version–TRC, DC, Denisa, me, and a friend. I read over the rules ahead of time, and then of course it took a fair bit of time to teach the rules and learn the game. In total, the first session probably took around 2 hours. DC dropped out as an active player a bit of the way through. It might be a tad long for 8 year olds. But the rest of us soldiered on, and we really enjoyed ourselves.

The game plays out fairly simply, once you get the hang of it. You start out in the entryway of a large haunted house, the door locked behind you. You’re not sure what’s going on with the house, but you know you want to get out. If only you knew how . . . So you start exploring, witnessing creepy events, stumbling over haunted artifacts and weapons, and trying to find an escape. The house grows as you uncover room after room. (Each game, the house is different, ala Settlers of Catan.) At last, something triggers the haunting to manifest fully.

At that point, you find out who the traitor is, and you  play one of 50 different haunting scenarios.

For us, the first game involved a long exploration phase. We’d seen most of the house before the haunting began. In our case, it involved me turning out to be Dorian Gray, essentially. I had an evil painting that was granting me eternal life, and the others found out about it and decided to paint over it to kill me. That couldn’t happen, of course. I couldn’t let them do something like that. It was a mad scramble across the house we’d uncovered, with them searching for materials to destroy the painting and me trying to stop them. In the end, I prevailed, but it was pretty close for a long while.

I loved it. Better yet, TRC and DC loved it too. (DC had hung around, watching it all unfold even if she didn’t want to actually play.) Denisa is typically lukewarm to games the first time through, but she enjoyed it well enough. The best sign of a good game? The kids asked to play it again the next night. And the night after that.

We’ve gone through it three times now, and the other games have been much quicker. Probably about an hour each. The rules are fairly straightforward, and I love the storytelling aspect to the game. Better yet, each haunting we’ve done has given each game a very distinct feel to it which, coupled with the ever changing house, adds loads to the replayability factor, it seems. True, the initially creepiness of the first session is blunted some, since we’ve already seen a lot of what the house has to offer, but it still feels like each session is new and who knows what horrors await?

Hard to give the game a final rating just yet, but I’d say right now it’s an easy 4/5, with the potential for a real 5/5 on my hands. I definitely recommend this to anyone looking for a fun way to spend an evening telling a story as a group. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but in the end it’s easy to get the hang of, and a lot of fun to play out. Give it a shot!

New Geek Badge Unlocked!

I’ve been playing Magic: the Gathering long enough now that I’ve started to accumulate a fair number of cards. Lots and lots of cards.

Thousands of cards.

Denisa, being the keen observer of all things in our home, has noticed these cards. They have a tendency to accumulate and have little card parties all over the place. On bookshelves, under dressers, under chairs, on tables, in rooms, under the bed. You name it. They’re organized (because I’m me), but they do tend to sprawl.

So this week, I took a major step in my life. I had Denisa pick me up an old card catalog.

For my Magic: the Gathering collection.

That’s right, people. I store all those cards in an old-school librarian storage container. Let that sink in for a moment. The cool thing? I’m not the only one who does this. I learned it from friends. You might think it’s the epitome of nerdiness. I think it’s pretty much awesome. It only has six drawers, but the thing drinks in cards like a sponge. I only have half the drawers filled, which means I probably have a good 2-3 more years at least before I need to get a second one.

Unless TRC wants to use some of my storage space. He’s got his own collection . . .

But for now, the card menace has been stopped. Denisa’s happy. I’m happy. Life is good, peoples.

Learning to Lose

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know that TRC and I have gone to play Magic at our local store a fair bit. He drafts along with everyone else, and we have a good time doing it. A few months ago, I noticed he wasn’t really engaging in the games anymore. He’d play, lose, and shrug off the loss and go play 3DS or something as he waited for the next round. I wanted to get him more invested, so I thought about ways to do that. In the end, I settled on letting him keep any prizes he wins for himself. (When you draft, you buy 3 packs of new cards to open. Depending on how well you do, you can win extra packs.)

That worked wonders. TRC was suddenly very motivated to win.

Maybe a little too motivated.

The thing is, he’s started to have some success. He’s doing better, playing better, and having fun. For the most part. But I’ve also seen him start to care too much about winning. This last Friday, he was doing really well. He’d won two matches and tied a third, and with one more win, he could take first place, potentially, and win up to 8 packs in the process. He lost some close games, and he ended up taking 5th, only winning 1 pack.

He was pretty crushed. To the point that I wondered if this was a good thing for him or not. But we had a nice long discussion about playing and winning and losing, and the importance of being grateful for what you’ve got. (There were 17 players there, after all. For a 10 year old to take fifth place against a group of people all college-aged and up? I think that’s quite remarkable.) I also told him that I’d be happy to help him improve his game for the future. He makes some consistent mistakes that if he cleaned up, he’d be doing even better.

Of course, as soon as we started playing and I was pointing out the consistent mistakes he was making, he was less than enthused about this help. He wants to do well, but he wants to do well on his own. The thing is, you can’t have it both ways. In my spare time, I read up on strategy and different approaches to the game. (I’ve settled on Magic as my game of choice because it’s very deep and is always changing and evolving. Learn the rules once, and you can play. But they keep changing the rules, so you’re forced to always relearn. I like that process.) To get better at something all on your own just doesn’t make sense to me. Why not learn from the experience of others?

In any case, as I’ve watched TRC go through this process, I can’t help thinking it’s helping him in the long run. The fact is, there are winners and losers in many situations in life. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Sometimes through no fault (or credit) of your own. Learning how to lose is an important life skill. Knowing that it will happen from time to time and picking yourself up when it does . . . that’s hard to do. I still have trouble with it myself, and I’ve got a 25 year head start on TRC . . .

Games, Rules, Courtesy, and Cheating

I’m a competitive person by nature. I’ve always loved playing games, but–here’s the confession–I’ve loved winning them more. I don’t typically play to just have a fun time. I have difficulty turning off the desire to win, even when I really should be able to. I’d play a lot of games growing up–against my siblings or my cousins or my friends–and the goal was always the same: win.

I don’t consider myself to be a sore winner or loser. Once the game is over, I tend to calm down fairly quickly, unless it was a really close game. In that case, it takes me some time to get a return to normalcy. Even while the game is going on, I usually am enjoying myself–again, unless it’s a really close game. The more I become invested in a game, the more I start focusing on winning at all costs.

And there’s the question for the day: where do I draw the line for “at all costs”? I don’t cheat. For me, the only way to win the game is by winning by the rules. But I’m really a stickler to those rules, and sometimes that gets me into trouble.

The thing is, often the person who wins any game is the person who understands the rules most completely. I’ve always been a person who lives and dies by the rulebook. If someone pulls out a rule that gives them advantage–and they can prove it in the book–then I’ve considered that to trump my objections. This is sometimes the hardest part of a game to face. I remember a few years ago when I was playing Settlers of Catan and used a settlement to break up someone else’s longest road. They were convinced that didn’t matter–that settlements couldn’t break longest roads. I showed the part in the rules where it said otherwise.

The result wasn’t pretty. (Probably because by breaking that road, I gave myself the longest road, and thereby the win.)

So what do you do when the person you’re playing against doesn’t understand the rules of the game you’re playing. This is where I get myself into hot water sometimes. See, I like playing games against other people. Playing against myself just doesn’t have the same thrill. But if I have to help another person too much, then it feels too much like I’m just playing solitaire. There’s a fine line, then, between helping my opponent and biting my tongue to let them lose. Because on the other hand, how much fun is it to win if I only win because they didn’t understand what in the world they were doing?

In an ideal world, what I do is explain the rules fully and properly, and then answer any question they might have as accurately as I can, but let them play from there on out. This seems cut and dried, but I had a situation the other night where I was playing in an MTG draft. My opponent was misplaying, and I knew it. He/she was also beating me soundly, despite the fact that I felt like I was the better player. I was faced with a decision: should I explain what the proper rules were, as the better player? Or should I just let my opponent misplay.

Since I was getting trounced, I allowed the misplays to continue. I feel fairly guilty about it now, actually. Looking back on it, I think the right thing for me to have done would have been to note that the rules weren’t being carried out the right way, and then to explain what the right way was. After that, I could have just continued to play without feeling guilty. If mistakes were made, I’d know they wouldn’t have been because of anything I was doing.

Of course, because karma is a thing, that first game went far too long, and although I won the second game (without needing misplays by my opponent to save me), there wasn’t enough time for a game 3. I ended up getting a draw instead of a win or loss. I’m fairly confident that game 3 would have gone in my favor. I had a stronger deck and had sideboarded well, and I knew what was going on in my opponent’s deck well enough that–barring getting really unlucky–I should have taken it easily. But because I’d bit my tongue, I didn’t have time to eke out a win.

But still, how do you decide when your opponent didn’t know enough? In my game of Catan, I won due to a rules question. My opponent had no idea that rule existed, and so he played one way. I knew about it, and so I played another. By the end of the game, so much of our strategies had depended upon our individual knowledge of the rules. There was no way to “take it back.” If we played without the rule, I would have lost. Playing with it, I won. Neither side could really feel good about his victory or loss.

The answer, of course, is to not take games so darned seriously. But since I don’t appear to be able to do that, I’m not sure if there really is an answer. And so I almost always fall back on the rules. I rarely care about who wins or loses the first three or four times I play any game. The rules aren’t defined enough in my mind to be able to expect to win by skill. But once both sides have played a game a fair bit, then I think it’s up to each side to know the rules and play by them. You correct infractions as they arise, but I see my opponent making some really dumb strategy errors–and they’ve played the game a bit–then I let them make them, since I know they know the rules.

Who knew playing a simple game could be so complex?

Any serious board gamer, that’s who.

How about you? Do you game? What do you do when you come across tricky situations like these?

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