I’m always on the lookout for good games that will satisfy a diverse group, whether it involves kids, non-gamers, or just a gathering that’s larger than four people - relevant as ever during the holiday season. As you might imagine, these tend to be lighter games than take less than an hour to play. I want to be able to explain them in 5 minutes or less, engage everyone, and hopefully confuse no one. At the bottom, I’m also including some neat compact games that are sure to be a delight in someone’s stocking.
Players: 2-8, but up to 12 could work.
Time: 30-45 minutes
Ages: Officially 14+, I’d say 8+
Gameplay style: Communication, party game
Great for: Casual gatherings, non-gamers, but actually pretty much everyone.
Medium is a brilliantly simple party game. Each turn, 2 players put down cards and try to make an association between two words, melding their minds together in an attempt to say the same word simultaneously. Guessing the correct word on the first attempt will land you more points than doing so on the second or third, while failed attempts will at the very least provide some chuckles. You can play in teams of 2 or go around in a circle alternating neighbors, which might be preferable in a larger group. As soon as I played it, I knew I had to pick up a copy for upcoming holiday events. A shout out to David from Winsmith Games for introducing it to me.
Time: ~15 mins
Ages: Officially 8+, I’d say 6+
Great for: Quick play, kids
PUSH is a simple card drawing game with a “push your luck” mechanic. Each player draws cards on their turn and places into 3 columns, for as long as no column has a repeat of the same color or number. The main tension on each turn is: at what point do you stop drawing cards? If you draw a card you can’t place, you don’t get to keep any of your cards, forfeiting any points you may have received otherwise. There are also cards that force you to roll a die, which may result in the loss of some portion of your existing cache of points. Now, I’m normally not a fan of games with too much randomness, but in this case it doesn’t feel unfair because taking the risk is always up to the player. A shout out to Michelle Ridge for showing this game to me at PAX Unplugged.
Players: 2-5 (Sushi Go Party! Can accommodate up to 8)
Time: ~15 mins
Great for: Quick play, kids
Sushi Go! is a game that will cater to all skill levels and can easily be taught through a demo round instead of a rulebook. The game is played in rounds; each player will pick a card from their hand, pass their hand in a clockwise direction, and continue to pick and pass from the hands until there are no cards remaining. Each card has a certain value depending on various factors, like set collection or having the most of a certain card. After three rounds, players add up their total points throughout the game to determine the winner. This one is great for a quick play and the cards are also hella cute.
Players: 2-4, but could easily scale up to 6.
Time: ~45 mins
Gameplay style: Abstract strategy
Great for: All ages, classic game lovers
I’ve mentioned Qwirkle before in my post about abstract strategy game recommendations, and I think it’s a great one for this context. Qwirkle is a tile laying game that can be transported in a drawstring bag, and plays like a combination of dominoes, scrabble, and sudoku, but with shapes and colors. To me, this game is a modern classic that I can play with a little kid or with my grandpa. It’s easily explained, not language dependant, and offers a good blend of strategy, chance, and a little friendly competition.
Tips: Make sure you have a decent amount of table space and a paper and pen to write down the scores - points are counted after every turn. If anyone in your group has trouble differentiating colors, a great hack by Sarah Reed is to add a dot or sticker in the center of certain colored tiles to make them easier to tell apart. (Photo via Sarah Reed)
Time: 45 mins
Ages: Officially 14+, I’d say 10+
Great for: Casual gatherings, better for players with a little experience
Codenames is not a complicated game, but compared to the above, the learning curve is a tiny bit higher. It shares some attributes with Medium, in that it is played in teams and involves trying to decipher what’s going on in someone else’s mind. Cards are placed in a 5x5 grid, presenting either words or pictures (depending on the game) and one player acts as a clue-giver for the rest of the team as they try to guess the correct cards per a master-plan card that only the clue-givers can see. The clue can only be one word, but multiple cards can be guessed, so the challenge is finding connections between various objects and communicating those associations effectively to your team. The challenge for the rest of the team is to interpret the clues, which can be easier said than done. As for the two versions, they’re both great, and it’s entirely personal preference. As a very visual person, I enjoy Codenames: Pictures more, but I know plenty of people who prefer the words. Note that the Pictures version does have a lot of detail, so it may prove more difficult for anyone with poor eyesight.
Time: 10 mins
Ages: Officially 8+, I’d say 5+
Great for: Quick play, kids
This game is very easy and mostly chance-based, but nonetheless entertaining. It almost feels silly to write about, because it is such an old game, but somehow I never encountered it until I played a similar game called Double Shutter and was pleasantly surprised. Players each have a set of levers, labeled 1-9, and take turns rolling dice and putting down the levers in various combinations that add up to the number on the dice roll (rolling a 6 allows you to put down 6, 5 and 1, or 2 and 4). The goal is to be the first to put down all your levers, and the fast pace of this game will probably make you want to play “best out of 3.” I will add that I enjoyed Double Shutter a little more, as it involved a cleverly reversed second row and therefore a little more strategy, but unfortunately it’s only available for 2 players. (Pictured below: 4 player version of Shut the Box)
Players: I recommend 1-3
Time: ~60-90 minutes
I already wrote about Dr. Esker’s Notebook in my post about tabletop game recommendations. It’s pretty much a card-based mini-escape room that comes in a nice compact deck box. The puzzles are pretty fun and although you can only play it once it’s not destructible so it can easily be passed on to a friend.
Button Shy has an entire collection of Wallet Games - that is to say, card games that come in a small folding slip wallet. I’ve only tried a couple of them so far, but they’re so compact and seem to be pretty light on the difficulty spectrum. (Pictured below: Antimony)
Packogames are the size of a pack of gum, which is pretty awesome in itself. There’s a good variety of gameplay styles, from abstract to word games, to auction and deduction. If you order a pack of 8 you get a discount and a free carrying case. (Pictured below: SHH.)
And, if you’re looking for recommendations for your nerdy/puzzle friends, check out Room Escape Artist’s Holiday Buyer’s Guide.
What games do you whip out for the holidays?