Whatever you do, and whatever you celebrate, there is no better way to spend a Christmas, Hanukkah, or what have you than together with friends, family, and neighbors with a warm cup of (fair trade) cocoa and a stack of casual board and/or card games.
The overwhelming majority of the games listed here are meant for newer players, non gamers or the like. I don't list the complicated, heavier games for gamers only.
I hope you enjoy the guide. Remember: the holidays are not only for sharing the warmth with family and friends, but also for sharing with those who have no one else to share with them. Give to your local shelters, hospitals, and so on, because that's the gift that keeps on giving.
|Apple iPad 2|
I'm starting with this unusual choice for a board game list, because the iPad (and other tablets) is actually a perfect platform for playing thousands of face to face games for two to four players. Because you don't need to buy the physical components, you can stack all your games in a teeny space, the games (if not the tablet) cost very little, and you don't have to cut down old trees to make them or use fossil fuels to ship them. Tablets have their own environmental impact in their making, so that's a tradeoff; but if you're getting one anyway, most of the games on this list are available electronically.
|7 Wonders: Ages 9+, 4 to 7 players|
The same way that Dominion (later on this list) took the gaming world by storm a few years ago, this game took the gaming world by storm this year (and, like Dominion it uses another auxiliary mechanic from Magic: The Gathering tournaments). This is a game of drafting cards. You get a hand of cards; pick one and pass the rest. Everyone reveals the card they picked and puts it into their tableaux. Repeat. Done. Score points based on the combinations of cards you have at the end of all the passing.
The graphics are fantastic, the theme not so visible. It's easy to learn, with depth enough to spare.
|Apples to Apples: Ages 9+, 4 to 10 players|
Apples to Apples is a party game that is simple to set up, learn, and play. There is no writing involved, and no board. And unlike many party games, reading all the cards doesn't ruin the game.
Each player has a hand of red apples (nouns) with which they have to match the green apple (adjective) flipped up. Each player has a chance to judge the best match. The cards you have in your hand never exactly match what gets flipped up; you have to do your best!
|Antike: Ages 8+, 2 to 6 players|
Risk is a long game of laying low, with player elimination and just too much in the luck department; this game is the perfect evolution to, and replacement for, Risk.
It plays quicker, there's dice-less conflict, no one gets to lay low watching while others fight, and - excepting truly poor play - everyone has a chance for most of the game. There's also a lot more to the game than just conflict, but the rules are short and elegant.
Unfortunately, it's out of print, so it's a bit hard to find, and pricey when you find it.
|Backgammon: Ages 6+, 2 players|
Backgammon is a classic game that can be enjoyed by children and parents alike. While there is a large amount of luck in the game, there are also many meaningful decisions, which makes this a good stepping stone to future games with more challenge, such as Checkers or Chess.
|Blokus, Blokus Trigon, Blokus Duo: Ages 8+, 4 players (Blokus), 2-4 players (Blokus Trigon), or 2 players (Blokus Duo)|
Blokus, Blokus Trigon, and Blokus Duo are abstract games with very simple rules. Each round you take a piece and place it on the board such that it touches any previous pieces you have played, but only corner to corner. It can touch other players' pieces along corners or sides.
The rules are easy, the components are beautiful, and it's a lot of fun.
|Boggle: Ages 8+, 2 to 10 players|
Boggle is a word game, whose simple rules - find all the words you can within three minutes - make it a game that is both fun and quick. Adults can play with kids by restricting the adults to have to find words of four or five letters.
|Carcassonne, variants, and expansions: Ages 10+, 2 to 5 players|
Carcassonne is a fairly new game that is a bit more complex than some of the other games here, but the beautiful pieces and the fun game play are worth the time to learn. Pick a piece from the pile, rotate and place it so that it fits on the board (like dominoes), and then optionally place one of your pieces on that tile. There are several ways to score, some of which occur during the game and some of which only at the end of the game.
There are some more rules than that, but not too many more. The game play is engaging enough to make you want to play it more than once in a single sitting.
There are dozens of versions to the game, and some of the versions have several expansions. The one that I linked to is called "Hunters and Gatherers" and is a good standalone game to start with.
|Checkers: Ages 5+, 2 players|
Checkers is a classic, and rightfully so. The rules are very simple, although there are regional variations. Although the game often hinges on who makes the first major mistake, it is worthwhile learning the tricks and the care necessary to play well. With two experienced players, there is a lot of depth to explore.
It's cheap, and grandpa will play with you.
|Connect Four: Ages 5 to 12, 2 players|
Connect Four is a classic two-player strategy game, where the object is to get four in a row before your opponent does. Easy to set up, easy to learn, hard to master.
|Chess / Xiangqi / Shogi: Ages 6+, 2 players|
These three games, Chess, XiangQi (Chinese Chess), and Shogi (Japanese Chess), are all top-tier 2-player games that can occupy a curious mind for an entire lifetime. They also have wide followings, so learning the game is learning a language that will admit you to a culture of fellow players around the world.
Board and piece prices range from inexpensive to very expensive, and Chess pieces come in many different themes.
|Chinese Checkers: Ages 6+, 2 to 6 players|
Another great abstract, and a pretty one if you find one with nice marbles. The rules are simple: move or jump your pieces from one side to the other. Finding chains of jumps is a thrill for all ages.
|Carrom / Crokinole / Nok-Hockey / Air Hockey / Billiards / Foosball, etc.: Ages 6+, 2 players|
Carrom is the most played tabletop game in India. Like Billiards, the object is to knock pieces off the table area, which you do by flicking wooden disks with your fingers. Crokinole is another classic finger flicking game, as is a racing game called Pitchcar. All kinetic tabletop games, from snooker to billiards to foosball, are loved by players of all ages.
|Playing Cards: Ages 3+, 1 to any number of players|
Decks of cards, whether they are the well known Western type with 52 cards in 4 suits, or special European or Asian decks, are a great starting point for any number of wonderful games, including Bridge, Hearts, Skat, Cribbage, Pinochle, Oh Hell, Bullsh*t, Durak, President, Spades, Solitaire, and many others.
Check out Pagat.com for the rules to these games and to thousands of others.
|Dominion: Ages 10+, 2-4 players|
Dominion won nearly every major game award last year. It's a game based around deck building: as you play, you acquire cards which get shuffled into your deck. You need victory points to score, but too many early victory points will clog up your deck, making it harder to acquire more points.
A brilliant adaptation of a mechanic, it plays quickly and every game plays differently. The game now has several expansions, all of which are good.
|Froggy Boogie: Ages 3-9, 2 to 4 players|
Froggy Boogie is a brilliant game to frustrate grownups and please younger children. All you have to do is remember where the picture of the fly is, under the left eye or the right eye? The dice have only colors - no counting necessary. It's a perfect first game.
|Go / Pente: Ages 6+, 2 players|
Beyond Chess, Checkers, or XiangQi is the absolute perfect game of Go (aka Weiqi); it's so popular, there are twenty-four hour television stations dedicated to it, an anime series based on it, and it's considered one of the four arts of the Chinese scholar.
It really is that good, and the rules are easy, too. Best of all, a built-in handicap system allows two people of any skill levels to enjoy a challenging game against each other.
The link I provided is to a nice inexpensive board; you should really play with a much nicer board.
Pente, a game of getting five stones in a row, can be played on the same board. The rules are just as easy as Go, and while the game has much less depth, it is also a little less intimidating to new players.
|Hive: Ages 8+, 2 players|
Hive is another new game with simple rules and cute buggies. Each round, you either add a piece to the table so that it is connected to the other pieces, or you move a piece. When you move a piece, you can't break up the hive while doing so. The winner is the one who surrounds his or her opponent's queen bee.
Each player has eleven pieces, with five different bugs and abilities. Its simple rules and nice pieces make this a game that generally gets several plays in one sitting.
|Ingenious: Ages 8+, 2 to 4 players|
Ingenious (sometimes called "Connections" or "Mensa") is another new and neat abstract game, where you score points by placing domino like pieces to create lines of colors. Your final score is whatever color you have the least of.
It's another pretty game with simple rules and a lot of replay.
|It's Alive!: Ages 7+, 2 to 4 players|
A little plug for my own game. This is a simple set-collection auction game with a Frankenstein theme. It fits in well with the other games on the list: easy to learn, quick to play, lots of replayability.
Of course, I may be biased, since I designed it. This game was published by Reiver Games.
|Jungle Speed: Ages 8+, 3 to 8 players|
There are several games of speed reaction / pattern recognition on the market; I chose this one because of the components. Players flip cards in turn and grab for the totem in the middle as soon as two matching cards are revealed. Don't play with friends who have sharp nails or finger jewelery.
|Magic the Gathering: Ages 8+, 2 players|
After a decade and a half, Magic is still The Bomb when it comes to collectible card games, although Yu-Gi-Oh sells more cards. These are not easy games to learn, but quick start guides can get you off the ground fairly quickly, and then you have months and years of challenging game play ahead of you.
Don't get sucked into having to buy endless amounts of boosters; to play the game outside of a tournament, you only need a few hundred common cards which can be picked up for a penny each on various sites.
|Mancala: Ages 5+, 2 players|
This is widely known around the world under various names (e.g. Oware), and the national game of many African countries.
The rules are easy: pick up all the seeds in one of your bowls and place one in each bowl around the table. If you land on an empty space on your side, you win the seed and any seeds opposite.
There are a few more rules, but that's about it. It takes a few games to get up to speed; early victories tend to be lopsided. Once you get the hang of it, you can play several, quick, challenging games in succession.
|Memory: Ages 3 to 12, 2 to 5 players|
This is a first game for kids and adults, and a great game for it, because kids get the hang of it very quickly and adults find it a real challenge without having to pretend. All you need are one or two decks of cards, but an infinite number of these games are sold with various different pictures and themes.
You can play with more than 5 players, but I wouldn't recommend it.
|No Thanks: Ages 7+, 3 to 5 players|
This is an easy to learn and addictive little card game. A card is flipped up, and you either take the card and any tokens on it or place one of your tokens on it and pass it to the next player. Cards are bad, and tokens are good. But runs of cards only penalize you for the lowest valued card.
A simple and fun game.
|Parade: Ages 7+, 3 to 5 players|
Another easy to learn and addictive little card game. Add cards to the end of the "parade", taking cards from the parade into your pile based on a few simple rules. Points are bad ... usually.
|Pit: Ages 7+, 4 to 10 players|
I don't know if you can play up to 10 players with the original game, but you should. This is a loud trading game. The cards are dealt out, someone says go, and everyone shouts for what they need. The first player to collect a full set wins.
Raucous and fun. The deluxe version comes with it's own bell to signal the start of trading.
|Poker: Ages 6+, 2 to any number of players|
Playing for money is not a good habit, but a nice set of poker chips and some decks of cards is a great way to spend an evening. There are countless poker games, too.
|Puerto Rico: Ages 10+, 3 to 5 players|
Go is my favorite two-player game; this is my favorite multi-player game. I hadn't included it in previous years because I thought it might be too complex for the beginning player, but I think I've been underestimating people. I've seen new players pick it up and love it.
It's not easy to learn, but it's not that hard, either; it's just hard to master. A brilliant, brilliant game engine.
|R-eco: Ages 9+, 2 to 5 players|
This is another short and sweet card game, with simple clever mechanics that leads to enjoyable but no stress game play. Easy to learn and easy to play.
|Rummikub: Ages 7+, 2 to 4 players|
A game of rummy, but a good one. And also playable with the grand-folks.
|Scrabble: Ages 8+, 2 (or 2 to 4) players.|
Scrabble purists will tell you that you should only play with 2 players and a Chess clock, but for casual purposes it can be played with up to four. It is The word game, and for a good reason.
My favorite way to play is to ditch the board and just play Anagrams: turn over tiles, and first to call a word gets it. A similar, recommended game is Bananagrams, where players race to create their own crossword boards.
|Set: Ages 6+, 2 to 10 players|
Those who don't have it won't enjoy it. For those who do, it hits just the right spot in the brain. All you have to do is call out matches when you see them, but the matches have to match or not match in all four characteristics.
|The Settlers of Catan: Ages 8+, 3 to 4 players|
This is the perfect game for beginning adult gamers that I use to hook new players into my game group.
All you need to do is collect ten points through building settlements and cities, connecting roads, adding developments and trading with your fellow players. A unique board that changes each time you play, constant interaction even when it's not your turn, and a great balance of luck versus strategy makes this The Game to acquire if you still think that board games are only for kids.
|Shadows Over Camelot: Ages 12+, 3 to 7 players|
A cooperative game, this is no feel-good game of cooperation. The hordes of Saxons, Mordred, siege engines, and sinister knights are out to destroy Camelot, and you have to work together to save it. But lurking among the players is a traitor who wins if you all lose. Or is there?
Pretty components, albeit more complex than most of the games on this list. But it's easy for people to join and leave midgame.
Other recommended co-operative games that have made a splash in the last few years are Pandemic and Forbidden Island
|Stratego: Ages 6 to 15, 2 players|
By the time I was in my teens, I had outgrown this, but it remains a seminal game for early players, a great introductory war game with all the basic elements: strategy, tactics, and bluffing. Avoid the electronic ones; they break and they're noisy.
|Ticket To Ride: Ages 8+, 2 to 5 players|
Many of my fellow bloggers think that this, rather than Settler of Catan, is The Game. I disagree, but who am I to argue? New players will probably find this a great intro game, with lots of choices and great game play.
There are several editions of the game.
|Tichu: Ages 8+, 4 players|
A partnership "ladder" game, similar to the game President (sometimes known by its crude name). It's similar, but the addition of a few special cards, a partnership, and passing elevate this to a perfect game for two couples. This is THE card game in gamer circles, and it's not at all complicated.
|Time's Up: Ages 8+, 4 to 10 players|
This consistently ranks as the number one party game on all of my fellow bloggers' lists. It's the number one ranked party game on Board Game Geek. Which says something.
It plays a lot like the parlor game Celebrities.
|Uno: Ages 6 to 12, 2 to 8 players|
This could be a child's second game, after Memory, and before moving on to real games. There's not much in the way of thinking involved, but its simple rules, portability, and quick play make it an ideal game for younger kids in almost any situation.
Just be sure to move up to better games when the kids are ready.
|Wits & Wagers / Balderdash: Ages 8+, 4+ players|
These are party trivia games where knowledge of trivia is not so important. The question is asked, and each player writes down an answer. These are revealed and players then bid on the answers they think are best. The winning answer, and the winning bids, all score points.
Wits and Wagers does this in the form of a poker game setting, while Balderdash requires you to make up funny possible answers. Both have won awards and acclaim as a generation better than you-know-which famous trivia game.
|Zooloretto: Ages 8+, 2 to 5 players|
Winner of dozens of recent awards, Zooloretto is a cute game for kids and decent game for adults. Simply take the animals as they are revealed from the deck and try to fit them into your zoo without overcrowding.
A few extra rules and some clever mechanisms makes the game enjoyable for all ages.