I hear that people are shopping early this year for the winter holidays, and I love when moms and dads buy board games for the families. Each episode of my podcast recommends a game, usually a family friendly game, but just in case you don’t want to listen to all 20 episodes, I’ve given you some starting points below. (But you should listen to all 20 episodes, since most of them are just 10 or 11 minutes long!)
If you’d love to try a few new games, but you feel a little overwhelmed when you see the board game aisle at Target or Barnes & Noble, this gift guide is for you!
Games for Younger Players
If your kids aren’t yet reading or wouldn’t find a lot of reading in a board game fun, I have a few suggestions. These are games that are kid-friendly and have a certain something that makes them fun for adults, too!
ICECOOL (Brain Games, 2016) – The kids call it the “penguin game” because it involves flicking little plastic penguins around a cardboard maze decked out to look like a penguin school in the Antarctic. One player is the Catcher, trying to tag all the other players, the Runners, who are basically playing hooky from school. ICECOOL is light, fun, and a little bonkers, especially when you combine it with its sequel ICECOOL2. No reading required, and not much strategy, either!
Listen to my full review of ICECOOL on Episode 12 of the First Player Token podcast:
Sleeping Queens (Gamewright, 2005) – In the game, players compete to collect some rather whimsical queens, like the Pancake Queen, the Cat Queen, and the Book Queen. You collect a queen by playing equally whimsical kings, like Puzzle King, the Pasta King, and the Tie-Dye King. Don’t have a king card in your hand? If you can find a simple equation out of the numbered cards in your hand, like 3 + 5 = 8, then you can discard those cards and draw more cards, hoping to get a king. Sleeping Queens has been a family favorite for years. It’s simple, easy to teach, fast to play, and offers great practice at basic addition facts. No reading required, but kids will need to be at least learning their basic arithmetic facts.
Listen to my full review of Sleeping Queens in Episode 20 of the First Player Token podcast:
Forbidden Island (Gamewright, 2010) – Forbidden Island isn’t really a little kids game, but since it’s a cooperative game, where everyone works together, it’s easy to player with younger players. In the game, players work together to explore a mysterious island, find its treasures, and escape before the island floods. If you’re successful, then everybody wins! If not, well, in my house, we usually want to play again to see if we can beat the game. I never played a cooperative board game when I was a kid, but I wish I had. Instead of competing with your dad or your brother, you’re helping each other out, working together to beat the game. No one gets their feelings hurt when they lose, everyone gets to celebrate when they win, and there’s some bonding that happens when you’re helping each other face a tough challenge. Forbidden Island is a great introduction to the world of cooperative games.
Listen to my full review of Forbidden Island in Episode 6 of the First Player Token Podcast:
Games for Bigger Families
Whether you have lots of kids or like to play games at family gatherings, it can be hard to find fun board games that can handle a lot of players and even harder to find ones that play well with all ages, from elementary school to retirement. Here are some great games that can handle six players or (in some cases) more!
Deep Sea Adventure (Oink Games, 2014) – This is a push-your-luck game with colorful components about diving for underwater treasure. In Deep Sea Adventure, between two and six players on the role of down-on-their luck treasure hunters. You’re in search of treasure at the bottom of the ocean, but you’ve only got enough funds for one submarine. This means that all players share the same oxygen as they dive down, grab treasure, and return to the sub. Deep Sea Adventure packs a lot of game in a small box, it handles up to six players, and it goes over well with all ages.
Listen to my full review of Deep Sea Adventure in Episode 5 of the First Player Token podcast:
Love Letter (Z-Man Games, 2019) – Last year, I reviewed an earlier version of Love Letter, which only handled up to four players. The newest version, which I now own and have played, can handle up to six players, while still fitting in a small velvety bag! In Love Letter, players try to get their love letter to the princess. The game features just 21 cards, with colorful characters from the royal court: a prince, a king, a handmaid, a baron, and, oh yes, the princess herself. How much fun can you have with a game consisting of just 21 cards? As it turns out, a lot! Love Letter is one of our family’s favorite games.
Listen to my full review of Love Letter in Episode 3 of the First Player Token podcast:
Sushi Go Party! (Gamewright, 2016) – Six players not enough? Try Sushi Go Party!, which can handle up to eight players! You know how in some sushi restaurants, the sushi comes out on a conveyor belt, and customers pick the sushi they want as it moves past them? That’s the basic idea of Sushi Go Party! The game consists of big deck of cards, each one featuring some adorable smiling sushi—nigiri, tempura, sashimi, maki rolls, and more. Each turn you pick a card from your hand to add to your collection, the pass the rest of your hand to the next player. This continues until all the cards have been picked, as the hands move around the table getting smaller and smaller. Each type of sushi scores in different ways–and each type of sushi is completely adorable. Sushi Go Party! is by far my favorite game about anthropomorphic sushi!
Listen to my full review of Sushi Go Party! in Episode 4 of the First Player Token podcast:
Games That Will Feel Familiar
If your family has pretty much stuck to the classics of board gaming, like Monopoly or Sorry! or Battleship, they might like learning a new board game better if it feels a little familiar. These games are all modern designs that offer a callback or two to old favorites.
Santorini (Roxley Games, 2016) – If your family is comfortable with classic abstract games like Checkers and Chess, you might like the much newer game Santorini. In Santorini, players take on the role of builders in ancient Greece. Each player has two workers, which they move around a five-by-five grid of squares, creating taller and taller buildings. The first player to move one of their workers to the top of a three-story tower wins the game. Like Chess and Checkers, Santorini is all about outmaneuvering your opponent in a geometrical arena using fairly simple rules. Unlike Chess and Checkers, each player in Santorini has a unique power, determined by the cards that come with the game, each representing some helping friendly character from Greek mythology.
Listen to my full review of Santorini in Episode 18 of the First Player Token podcast:
The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine (Kosmos Games, 2019) – Does your family play a lot of trick-taking card games like Hearts and Spades? Then they might like The Crew: The Question for Planet Nine. In the game, players take on the role of astronauts working together to find a mysterious ninth planet at the edge of the solar system. The Crew is a trick-taking game, like Hearts or Spades. But The Crew is not just a trick-taking game, it’s a cooperative trick-taking game. Instead of trying to outscore your opponents, you’re all working together to make sure certain players win certain tricks. Each time you play, you pick one of the 50 missions detailed in the game’s logbook and try to meet its conditions for success. The Crew is a great way to teach your kids about trick-taking games, so that they’re ready to take down their grandfather at Thanksgiving when Hearts comes out.
Listen to my full review of The Crew on Episode 16 of the First Player Token podcast:
Tokaido (Funforge 2012) – Does your family like Monopoly? Well, here’s a game that doesn’t look anything like Monopoly, but I’m going to argue Tokaido hits some of the same notes while avoiding some of Monopoly’s unfortunate design choices. The theme is completely different… vacationing in 17th century Japan instead of buying up real estate and charging rent. The components are completely different, too… there aren’t any dice to roll or paper money to stack, instead you get a beautiful board showing the road to Edo (modern day Tokyo). But both games are all about moving ahead, never going back, and blocking your opponents whenever you can get away with it. And both games involve collecting sets of things. In Tokaido, instead of color-coded real estate, you’re collecting experiences, like visiting hot springs, painting landscapes, and shopping for souvenirs. Plus, in Tokaido, no player gets eliminated before the game is over, and the game doesn’t overstay its welcome, playing in under an hour.
Listen to my full review of Tokaido in Episode 17 of the First Player Token podcast:
Games for Older Players
Whether you’re playing with friends and family who are adults, or your kids are a little older and ready for a slightly more complex game, you’ll find that modern board games offer a lot of fun. Here are a few of my favorite games to play with people ages 12 and up.
Wingspan (Stonemaier Games, 2019) – Back in 2014, Elizabeth Hargrave and her husband had recently started birdwatching. Around that time, she also started playing more board games, and became interested in designing her own game. “There were too many games about castles and space,” Hargrave said in an interview, “and not enough games about the things I’m interested in. So I decided to make a game about something I cared about.” Wingspan was the result, and it’s been a hit in the board game world, selling out three print runs in its first two months of release in 2019, and going on to win multiple awards. Players take on the role of bird enthusiasts, trying to collect the best birds for their wildlife preserves. It has rapidly become a favorite late-night game for my wife Emily and me.
Listen to my full review of Wingspan in Episode 8 of the First Player Token Podcast:
PARKS (Keymaster Games, 2019) – Apparently, my wife and I like games that remind of the outdoors. The board game PARKS does a great job of capturing the beauty and wonder of the US National Parks. It is the prettiest game I own, with stunning artwork from the Fifty-Nine Parks Print Series. In the game, you take on the role of hikers, exploring the great outdoors and visiting as many National Parks as you can. More than once, it has inspired us to visit a National Park that was new to us.
Listen to my full review of PARKS on Episode 7 of the First Player Token podcast:
Space Explorers (25th Century Games, 2017) – Space Explorers is a game that conjures up the excitement of the 1960s space race. Players take on the roles of heads of space research centers, recruiting a variety of experts to build and launch satellites and spaceships, hoping to have the most impressive set of projects and specialists by the end of the game. You’ll need to recruit scientists and engineers, test pilots and astronauts, all illustrated in a style right out of a 1960s Life magazine. And those projects you’re working on? They are all actual missions, split evenly between the US and the USSR. Sputnik and Voyager, Voskhod and Skylab, Lunokhod and Apollo.
Listen to my full review of Space Explorers on Episode 19 of the First Player Token podcast: