Welcome to our 2nd annual board games for Christmas list! Looking back at last year’s list is still worthwhile, as all those games are still available (some even with new expansion content) and still fun to play. Here, though, are six more games you might want to check out for this gift-giving season.
1. Wingspan, Stonemaier Games
In Wingspan, you play as ornithologists trying to attract various birds to your bird preserve. Once you have them in your collection, you need to feed them correctly, if you want the birds to settle down and start a family there. This game requires a bit of planning and strategy, but it is not very difficult to understand. This award-winning game features beautiful artwork and components that make learning about birds fun and enjoyable.
This game is available in many different stores as well as on-line, so tracking one down shouldn’t be a problem. Once you have enjoyed the base game, Wingspan has many expansions to enable you and your family to learn about birds from around the world.
2. Aquatica, Arcane Wonders/Cosmodrome Games
From actual avians to fantastic fishes, we dive next to a fantasy game of underwater empire adventure. Aquatica is an engine-building game in which you are building your underwater empire through conquering or purchasing territory and recruiting merlads and merlassies to be a part of your new kingdom. This is all done though card playing and hand management, i.e., knowing when to pick up the cards you’ve already played and play them again or when to get new cards from the ones available for all players.
Once you’ve conquered or purchased new land cards, you can slide them into your player board and gain further bonuses from them … but you also need to turn your conquered land into victory points before the game is over, or they won’t be nearly as beneficial as you thought they would be.
This is a fast game with gorgeous artwork and changeable goals to give you and your fellow players new objectives to reach, new strategies to try each time you play the game, so each play experience will be distinct.
3. Robin of Locksley, Rio Grande Games
If you are looking for a fun, fast-paced 2-player game, look no further than Robin of Locksley. Don’t let the subtitle (“Contest of Thieves”) throw you off: you aren’t really stealing anything. This is a set-collecting race game, in which you and your opponent are collecting various sets of treasure tiles from the center of the game area to overcome obstacles depicted in the frame tiles around the game area. Your piece in the middle of the board is moving like the knight in chess (easy to remember, as it is shaped like a horse in this game as well), taking the tile you land on into your collection and replacing the empty spot you left with a new tile, so the board is always changing. Some obstacles are easy, such as having one tile of one specific colored treasure. Others require your piece to be in a specific spatial relation to your opponent. If you have three or more of one kind of treasure, you can turn them into gold pieces and pay to get past obstacles along the outer track, so you never feel like you are going to be stuck for too long in the game.
I’ve probably made the game sound more complicated than it really is. On the other hand, if you were thinking this game is too light and fluffy, don’t be thrown by that, either. Yes, this is a quick game, but it is so fun and offers enough decision-making even in a short amount of time, you’ll likely end up playing it 2 or 3 (or more) times in a session. The various obstacles along the track can be ordered differently each time you play, and the game includes easier and harder obstacles to make each experience unique. I know we say that a lot, but it’s the new style of board game design, really: each game should be familiar yet fresh. This game is quite good.
4. Silver and Gold, Pandasaurus Games
If you like the idea of a simple, fast game but you have a couple more than two people who want to play, Silver and Gold is a winner every time. You are all treasure seekers, digging up various spots on dozens of islands, looking for, you guessed it, silver and gold. You will also dig up gold coins, which will give you points toward victory, and you may even dig up palm trees, which are more beneficial than it probably sounds right now.
This game is in the rapidly-expanding “roll-n-write” group of games, or, more specifically, this is a “flip-n-write” game. In the course of a round (4 rounds total), someone will flip over seven cards (one at a time), each card depicting the shape of a polyomino (e.g., a Tetris shape, as you see here). You then mark off that design on one of the island cards in front of you. If you can’t fit that design exactly on one of your two cards (or if you don’t want to use that specific pattern this turn), you can mark off one square of your choice, so you are always doing something each turn. With only seven cards coming up each turn, you won’t see each pattern each turn, so there’s a little mystery each round. Every time you complete an island (mark off each square with your dry-erase marker), you get a new island to dig up.
After four rounds of seven patterns each, the game ends. You will probably finish off ten or more islands each game, even in the rapid time it takes to play. As always, with different patterns each turn, different-shaped islands available each game, Silver and Gold is distinct and enjoyable each time you play. Plus, it’s simple enough that younger kids can play well (perhaps with a smidgeon of coaching), and it’s deep enough for adults to enjoy as well. This game is usually available for $15 or less, so it’s a great bargain (and makes a great stocking stuffer). Just don’t forget to wipe off the dry-erase marks on the islands when the game is over!
5. Maracaibo, Capstone Games
If the thought of hopping from island to island from Silver and Gold is appealing to you but you wish it was in a bigger game of expansion and kingdom building like in Aquatica, then Maracaibo may be the game you’re looking for. I’m a big fan of the designer of this game, Alexander Pfister. If you can track down a copy of his games Great Western Trail or Port Royal, you won’t be disappointed in those, either.
In Maracaibo, you are bopping around islands in the 17th-century Caribbean, moving your ship around to get resources, acquire gold, hire shipmates, acquire land and buildings, all to make the world a better place (and points and victory, of course). This is another card-driven game, in which you are using cards to acquire those resources, upgrade your abilities on your ship, and manage the productivity of your crew as you complete objectives and explore the world while carving your niche in it.
This is certainly the heaviest game on the list, but for those of you who are looking for a weightier game with lots of decisions and variety, I wanted you to know games like this exist. Yes, it comes with a lot of pieces, but they all make sense quite quickly. Alexander Pfister knows how to design a complex game without it being too complicated. This game also has a campaign element to it: some decisions you make in your first game will affect game play and events in the next game, and so on, which definitely gives Maracaibo a lot of replayability and you your money’s worth.
6. Cosmic Encounter, Fantasy Flight Games
From the biggest game on the list to the oldest, we conclude with a much different kind of game: Cosmic Encounter. Cosmic Encounter first appeared in 1977, yet somehow it is still around and still worth playing. Cosmic is, on the surface, a game about interstellar conquest, but it really is a game of playing with your friends: it’s the people playing that make the game. It is a game of negotiation, of collaboration, and, depending on what you and your cohorts want to do, a game of sneaky backstabbing and allegiance-switching … all in the name of good, clean fun, of course. This game may be more of an enjoyable social experience than a game, per se, which is pretty much the ideal for any board game, anyway.
Everyone is engaged throughout the game, even if it’s not “your turn.” Everyone can get involved in the events of planet conquering and conflict negotiation, and usually the more player interaction per turn the better the game goes. Each player is a unique alien race, with special abilities, individual ways to bend (or break) the few rules of the game, so if you play the base game with 5 players each time, you’ll have to play the game over ten times before you start to see things you’ve seen already. And if you somehow exhaust all those options, FFG has 6 expansions already out there, with more features, more player powers, and more fun. How’s that for good replayability?
Most of the games on this list are quite recent, but this game has stood the test of time. If Cosmic Encounter is not in your collection yet, perhaps this is a good year to add it.