The holidays are a time of family. Awkward family you haven’t seen in foreves. I mean, sure, you follow them on Facebook, but once you’ve covered the catching-up phase, what do you do?
My suggestion: make the holidays a time of family gaming. I think you can, and I think it’s easy. But it’s not a one-size fits all approach. There are plenty of great board games, card games and video games out for folks of all ages – and with a little forethought, you can be the hero that emcees the whole thing.
Here are some suggestions of games you can break out once family starts showing up, and there’s bound to be something for everyone.
Who Should Play? Parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, anyone old enough to count
Why? Dominoes is classic. It’s a game celebrated both in old folk’s homes and rap videos. But make sure you’ve got your rules set first, since rule sets vary by region and community. I prefer a simple game of Straight Dominoes where everyone gets seven dominoes to start and you score by making multiples of five. You can pick up a basic “double six” dominoes set anywhere toys are sold and it’ll only set you back about $15, or you can get a more impressive set in the depths of the internet. Or, if you have a spare $3,995 burning a hole in your wallet, you can get this wood and alligator leather dominoes set from Burberry. Seems legit.
Game: LEGO Board Games
Who Should Play? Your middle-school-aged children, your nieces and nephews (and you)
Why? You might have to do a little digging and eBay bidding, but if you’re able to find any of LEGO’s board games out there, they’re worth a play. More than 20 LEGO board games were made between 2009 and 2013, including buildable, dice-roll-based versions featuring Batman, The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and even Star Wars (good luck scoring this one online for under $100 though). You can have tons of fun with some of the other sets though, especially Magma Monster, which essentially has you dice-rolling to move quickly over lava to defeat a monster, and the more RPG-lite Heroica games, where you collect keys, find potions and treasure, and attack monsters. You can still find the Heroica series on eBay for fairly cheap. Games are easily taught, only last 10-20 minutes (once you build the board and items) and usually accommodate up to 4 players. And they’re fun.
If you want a taste of what gameplay is like without having to set up and build a set, you can play a digital version of LEGO Heroica Fortaan on the Cartoon Network website.
Game: Cards Against Humanity
Who Should Play? Your brothers- and sisters-in-law, your friends, and maybe even your parents?
Why? Our generation is already playing Cards Against Humanity, and it’s glorious. The game of (mis)matching offensive questions and answers is an awkward ice breaker, but a fun way to figure out what gross bedroom stuff your family knows about. Also, don’t shy away from playing this with your parents and maybe even your aunts and uncles, though you might want to prep them for the fact that Cards Against Humanity is, as you know, filthy. But so is your uncle, which is why you call him Filthy Uncle Alan, so that’s that. Make sure you pick up a couple of expansion packs, which come with blank cards you can fill in with disgusting stuff about your own family members. Zing!
Who Should Play? Your children, nieces and nephews, anyone over 6
Why? Tsuro is easy to learn, can accommodate up to 8 players, and games take about 15 minutes: you and other players place path tiles on the board and move across them in-turn. Paths might cross or send you off the board. So, your goal is to be the last dragon on the board. It’s a simple enough game for kids, and it gets you away from playing Go Fish or Connect Four. Not that there’s anything wrong with those, but c’mon. The strategy scales with age; younger kids will fly off the sides of the board quickly, while older players will create strategic paths to cut off other players.
Game: WiiU Games: Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros. & Super Mario Maker
Who Should Play? Your young children, your young nieces and nephews (and you)
Why? Obviously, we’re a video game generation. And our kids get to share that love of video games with us. So why these games specifically? Because you’ve been playing the Mario Kart franchise since the SNES and it’s still incredible. Just go easy on your 6 year old nephew that doesn’t yet know how to snake-drift a track in order to keep the red sparks going and maximize speed.
Super Smash Bros. is another game you’ve been playing, since — lemme guess — your buddy’s dormroom in college. The organized-chaos rules are still more or less the same, and it’s still a ton of fun. Bonus: on the WiiU, up to 8 players can play at once if you’ve got the right gear.
Super Mario Maker is bat-poop crazy for all of the right reasons (see below). My suggestion is to have your little ‘uns make levels for the adults to beat. They might need your help making sure their levels are beatable, but let them go crazy, then watch your dad, mom, uncles and aunts (who used to play Super Mario Bros. 1 with you at holiday get-togethers when you were little) try and beat your nieces’ and nephews’ levels. I mean, c’mon:
Game: Star Wars Imperial Assault
Who Should Play? Your ultra-nerdy cousins (that play other tabletop stuff and know weird personal details about Wil Wheaton)
Why? After all the kids have gone to bed and your parents are sitting in the living room talking about how to make America great again, grab your cousins that you know already play Dungeons & Dragons in their spare time, and head into the kitchen with a box full o’ Star Wars Imperial Assault. Look, I’m not going to sugar-coat this: you’re gonna need some dedication from really nerdy players on this one, but if you can get a 1-2 hour commitment out of up to 5 people who are already familiar with semi-complicated tabletop gaming (or they’re super picky-uppy at technical dice-and-card stuff), Imperial Assault is a fun time. In campaign mode, one player plays as the Empire and the rest play as Rebel forces, and you go through a story, laying down grid-based boards that serve as your battle map. Players get awesomely-detailed plastic figures of Star Wars characters, and roll dice to determine attacks and defends. But don’t take my word for it, let the publisher, Fantasy Flight Games, intimidate you with nitty-gritty details:
It’d behoove you to learn this one before trying to wow family with it, but even if it’s just you and a couple of geeky cousins throwing back beers and reading the manual as you figure it out, you’re gonna have a good time. You’ll have an even better time if your family’s in town for days and you can revisit the game a couple days in a row. Plus, the whole world is whipped into a hard-nippled tempest over everything Star Wars right now, and having Imperial Assault will definitely make you the Grand Moff Nerdkin of the family.
Game: Zombie Dice
Who Should Play? Your friends and family, ages 6+
Why? A dice game that can go for as little at 5 minutes or as long as 40, Zombie Dice is as accessible as it gets (it’s probably the polar opposite of Star Wars Imperial Assault). You get a cup with 13 dice in it, and that’s all you need, aside from a sheet of scratch paper and your finest #2 pencil. To play: players are zombies and first to get 13 brains wins. You roll dice three at a time hoping to roll brain icons, but if you roll three shotguns, your turn is done. If you roll footprints, you carry those over to the next roll. It’s simple enough for a kid to understand and win (my 6 year old won our first family game), but complex enough for a room full of cocktailed-up adults to enjoy. And once you get the hang of the core game, there are a couple of expansions to pick up.
Who Should Play? Your friends and family, ages 8+
Why? The gameplay of Fluxx is simple enough: you start with a hand of three cards. You then draw a card and play a card. But right about then, things go haywire. The rules change. You draw a card that makes you physically stand up and switch seats with someone, but to leave your cards where they are. The person to your left draws a card that allows them to take a card from every other player. The person to your right draws a cars that makes them draw three cards instead of one. Meanwhile, you can’t come up with a long-term strategy to win because, well, no one knows the goal of the game initially. Someone has to play a “goal” card and when a player meets that condition, they win. But other players can replace the goal with another. There are a ton of versions of Fluxx including the original deck, Batman Fluxx, Star Fluxx, Oz Fluxx, Monty Python, Pirate, Zombie, Adventure Time and Regular Show. There’s even a Holiday Fluxx if you want to be really heavy-handed about your holiday gameplay.
Games always get really nostalgic for me around the holiday season. The colored glow of our Christmas lights outside, the fire in our fireplace, the smell of some candle we only take out late-November every year, laying on the floor playing some board game.
Everyone’s time off of school and work line up and create the perfect storm of family between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. And more often than not, you’re still not prepared to entertain a house full of people. The kids end up tearing up the house as the adults sit around and talk about adult things (like, you know, when you’re having your next kid because grandma is bored with your last one). So why not get them gaming?
Oh, and remember to be awesome and get these games at your local comic-and-game shops. I know it’s tempting to get them all on Amazon, but be a pal to your local small businesses.
Which board games, video games, dice and card games do you like to play with family and friends? Let us know in the comments!
(DISCLOSURE: Super Mario Maker was provided to me by Nintendo upon its release in September 2015. All opinions and recommendations in this article are my own.)