We’ve given some thought about what we could do that’s unique. The Dice Tower already has a great “12 Games of Christmas” series over on YouTube covering a lot of the new hotness from this year. The BoardGameGeek Gift Guide does a great job of covering the evergreen classics. But what about those games that are slipping under the radar, but are in fact quite amazing? That’s where we come in!
Without further ado, here is what you might call our Island of Misfit Games, a list of under-the-radar games that are awesome and readily available, along with information on who might enjoy them as gifts. We’ve split them by somewhat general categories, with a stocking-stuffer and a big box game for each – but in my book, these are all great games for gamers of any age.
Niya – Five Tribes wasn’t Bruno Cathala’s only solo release this year! Niya is a small abstract game from Blue Orange Games, for ages 7 and up. The game simply consists of 16 square Hanafuda-inspired tiles laid in a grid, and players take turns replacing tiles with their own beautifully chunky player pieces. The goal is simple: make four in a row, or four in a square, or make it so your opponent can’t move. But the tricky part is that each tile has two symbols on it, and your opponent can only take a tile that matches one of the symbols of where you last moved! It’s quick, it’s simple, it’s beautiful. No text and few rules means that kids can grasp it easily, but still develop some creative and strategic thinking. Once they know the game, kids can quite easily play this with no adults around as well. It’s also a game adults can enjoy – playing it around a small table with some college students while drinking hot tea just seemed like the perfect setting for this game, and is one of my favorite gaming memories from this past year.
Camel Up – If X-Wing has proved anything about board games, it’s that it’s pretty helpful when a product is part-game, part-toy. Camel Up has learned this lesson well, with its unnecessary-yet-awesome dice pyramid, which simultaneously randomizes which die you roll and what roll you get on said die. Behind this mechanism is a pretty simple game of betting on a camel race, one that has a ton of visual appeal and a surprising amount of laughs, because you’re virtually guaranteed to see some improbable comebacks from game to game, due to the fact that camels can “piggyback” (or is that “camelback”?) on top of one another. Some gamers have been sour on this one, but believe me, Camel Up won the Spiel des Jahres for good reason.
Sushi Go! – Primarily thanks to the advent of 7 Wonders, drafting is becoming a more popular mechanism than ever, despite being used in Magic: the Gathering for years. Sushi Go! is a simple introduction to that idea, with a fun, colorful theme and a low price. Rather than having to work up to producing resources for the later cards as in 7 Wonders, in Sushi Go! you simply grab a card and put it in front of you, possibly scoring some points for it. Each type of sushi scores points in different patterns, which are relatively simple, and even if you don’t follow them at first, there’s no rules to break – in the sense that anyone can grab some cards and flip ’em over, and then find out later how they did and watch it all click. I think it’s actually super-important for the games you teach beginners not to have those frustrating “Oh, sorry, you can’t do that” moments, and this game avoids that conundrum. The only slightly difficult aspect is the Chopsticks cards, but that doesn’t take too long to explain either. A great game for kids and adults of any age, and one that travels well and sets up quickly – you’ll be able to read the rules and bust this one out just after it’s unwrapped!
La Boca – I first found this game on a whim when I was looking for games to use with college students last semester. What I found was an incredible game for all ages, and one that really did bring our family together. My sisters-in-law have varying levels of interest in playing games, especially the kind of high-strategy games that we prefer – but they all got excited by this one, and it turned out that the sister with the least penchant for strategy games just blew us out of the water. That kind of positive experience, bringing the whole family around the table for a laugh-out-loud good time, makes this an aboslutely perfect recommendation. As a bonus, you’ll be teaching the younger kids about cooperation and spatial reasoning too. You cannot go wrong with this one.
Skull / Skull & Roses – This is bluffing in its purest form – imagine if Poker was only psychology, with no mathematics involved. The game was originally called Skull & Roses, and although the new edition has a name much less enticing and much harder to Google (just “Skull“), the new artwork completely blows my mind. I never found much appeal in the biker-gang back story, but the idea of this being an ancient game among early civilizations is kind of cool, and you could almost see it being true, as the game is so dead simple. Anyone who likes to lie in games like The Resistance or Coup absolutely needs to experience Skull. This is easily one of my favorite games of all time. With the recent reprint, there’s just no excuse!
Black Fleet – When I think back to my teenage years, I think about just how much Magic: the Gathering we were playing. What made that game so fun, was being able to do all of these cool card combos, and just giving yourself special powers and abilities by the cards you played. That’s always been my favorite mechanism in games – having cool text on cards, things I was allowed to do that maybe no one else could. Black Fleet exchanges the typical dice-chucking wild ride of pirate games for exactly that – a deterministic combat system, but otherwise a totally card-driven game chock full of special action cards and special abilities just for you. In fact, winning the game is a matter of just giving yourself more and more cool abilities! Add on the fact that this is an absolutely gorgeous game with cool ship miniatures and one of the most vibrant game boards I’ve ever seen, and you’ve got a winner.
Sail to India – After Seiji Kanai’s Love Letter took the gaming world by storm, micro-games became extremely popular, but I also think minimalist designs became somewhat pigeonholed into being very, very light games. Hisashi Hiyashi (more well known for Trains) completely broke that mold by making a classic Eurogame of maritime trading out of only 24 cards and a bunch of cubes. Sail of India is an absolute masterpiece of design, where all the decision tension comes from the fact that your limited number of cubes get used in many different ways – as ships, as money, as VPs, and so on. It’s an amazing little game, one that I plan to take on every long trip I take from now on. Lovers of all things Feld and Rosenberg should get a kick out of this one. The only downside is the lack of support for only two players. Expect a review from us at some point, but for now, trust us – this is a great little game.
Helios – Some people think that the hobby’s going to have a bubble burst, due to the crazy amount of new games coming out each year – and this seems particularly evident in the area of deep, strategic Eurogames. Among all the hype for games like Five Tribes and Imperial Settlers, games like Helios are getting lost in the shuffle, so it’s our job to bring them back to your attention. Helios has a unique setting and some of the most gorgeous components you’ll ever see in a game. This one’s firing on all cylinders: some actual thematic integration, deep gameplay with simple mechanisms, and that wonderful art. If that hardcore gamer on your gift list is probably going to buy the hot games for himself anyway, this is a great way to surprise him with an under-the-radar, yet awesome, game.
Those are our recommendations for this year! Hopefully you’ve got some ideas now on how to truly surprise that love one with an exciting new game. Merry Christmas!