I have friends that swear by Monopoly, but I’ve never been a fan. I’d go so far as to say I consider it a truly awful game.
It lacks the most important element a game should have: fun.
Ohhh, let’s play capitalism on a board and spend 6-8 hours trying to bleed your friends dry so that one person emerges with all of the money. Mortgage, rent, utilities, jail – sounds like a blast, can I be the boot?!?!
Look, I understand a whole generation grew up on Monopoly, but kids also used to play Jacks. Times change …
The good news is that board games have advanced so much in the last 30 years – Settlers of Catan in 1995 helped usher in a new era – that you no longer have to fight with family and friends over Baltic Ave. There are so many great options that you can play in less than and hour and, get this, actually have fun.
There are even awards like the Spiel des Jahres (which translates to Game of the Year) for best new game and top designer, awarded annually by a jury of German game critics.
I’ll happily play just about anything friends and family suggest. We play a lot of Uno and Jenga and even break out old classics like Yahtzee with company.
But with the winter holidays on the horizon and families planning to get together this season, below are a few of my favorite board games that might help bridge the gaps between handicapping and betting the next card of races (I included Amazon Prime prices). If you are interested in horse-racing specific games, contributor David Hill put together some of his favorites a few years back.
THE SKINNY: Start out with a city and add resources to construct that city’s wonders as well as others structures like libraries, courthouse, and stables to amass victory points. Players take six turns per phase for three phases (or ages) and the player with the most victory points wins.
The game lasts about 30 minutes once you have played a few times and each city presents a few different options for the best path to victory. Rhodos, for example, rewards building up your military, while Babylon offers significant advantages for playing science cards. It’s a terrific game for 5-6 players and really fun for 3-4, but the two-player setup is a bit lacking, so much so that they put out 7 Wonders Duel specifically to address that deficiency.
Price: $39.99/$21.99 for 7 Wonders Duel
IN DEPTH: This is the game that rekindled our family’s enjoyment of board games back in 2015. I am a regular reader of MLB writer Keith Law, then with ESPN now of The Athletic, who is an avid fan of board games and frequently writes about them. We wanted something to play with the kids or when we had family in for a visit, and using his recommendations we landed on this game.
7 Wonders is unique in that all players (2-7) play their turn at the same time.
Each player begins with one of seven different city cards, and those city cards offer different ways to acquire victory points by completing specific wonders and adding other valuable assets. Players can get victory points by erecting civilian structure cards, playing science structure cards, adding military cards, etc.
You start out by adding resources during your turn such as stone, ore, clay, or wood (raw materials) or manufactured goods such as a glassworks, press, or loom. Those resources subsequently can be used to craft your city’s wonders, add military cards, and erect a Library (science card) or a Statue (civilian structure). You may also buy resources from neighboring cities if they have them.
The game last three phases (or ages) of six turns each. Players take one of the cards from the starting hand of seven to play and pass the rest to the player next to them for their next turn. Then they play one of the six remaining cards and pass them along again. The way you pass your cards switches with each phase.
You can see what the players to each side are building toward and block them by selecting cards you know would help them or simply focus on your own city building, but there definitely are tactics involved.
At the end of each phase, victory tokens are awarded to players with the highest Militia total, while the other structures and wonders grant a certain number of victory points at the end of the game. The player with the most victory points at the end is the winner.
7 Wonders won the inaugural Kennerspiel des Jahres award for more complex games as well as multiple other awards. Game designer Antoine Bauza won the 2013 Spiel des Jahres award in the designer category.
THE SKINNY: I really like games that play as well with two players as they do with four, and it’s especially key now with plenty of people quarantined at home with only a spouse/partner/roommate. Splendor is great with two players and it only takes about 30 minutes to blast through a game. Players use gems try to acquire prestige points through development cards or noble tiles.
IN DEPTH: The game starts with three rows of four development cards (each row from a different tier) that you try to acquire using gems. Each turn, a player gets to either take three different colored gems – there are five different colors for diamond, emerald, ruby, sapphire, and onyx – two of the same color, or purchase one of the development cards in the middle. If a development card is taken by a player it is immediately replaced by a new one from the corresponding deck so that there are always 12 cards on the table.
You earn prestige points based on the cards you purchase and can add bonuses by amassing cards of specific gems to gain a noble tile. Once a player reaches 15 points, the round is completed and players add up their totals.
Splendor won the 2014 Golden Geek Board Game of the Year and was a finalist for the Spiel des Jahres award. There are also now several variations, like Marvel ($39.99), and/or expansions for the base Splendor game.
THE SKINNY: This is a really fun game that is incredibly easy to pick up and becomes more and more vicious the more you play and the more you learn your competitors’ tendencies. The object is to build color-coded railway routes to link cities and thereby complete destination cards worth points at the end of the game. Los Angeles to New York, for example, takes a minimum of six separate routes. The player with the most points based upon the following formula wins: volume of railroad cars played, combined with completed destination cards, minus incomplete destination cards.
IN DEPTH: Each player picks a color and starts out with 45 colored train cars of that color plus his/her scoring marker. A map of the United States with color-coded paths to different cities is laid in the middle of the table and serves as the gameboard.
Each player is dealt four train cards from among eight different colors (plus a wild color card) and three destination cards. The dealer then draws five train cards and places them face up next to the deck of train cards.
Each turn, a player may draw two cards, either from the five face up (then immediately replacing with one from the deck), or two unseen from the deck; OR a player may select one wild card if one is showing face up; OR a player may play railroad cars to build tracks between cities; OR a player may draw three destination cards, keeping at least one.
Players try to complete destinations. For example, to go from Portland to El Paso, ideally you’d take the direct route of a track of five green or purple cars linking Portland to San Francisco; three yellow or purple cars linking San Francisco to Los Angeles; and three of any color (blank tracks mean you can use any color as long as all are the same) to connect from Los Angeles to Phoenix. That would complete that destination worth 11 points. Of course, other players might need the same tracks for their own destination or try to block by taking that railway before you, forcing you to give up on that destination or take a more circuitous route.
Each set of tracks you lay also adds points to your total – one point for a one-car track, two for a two-car track, four for three cars, seven for four cars, 10 for five cars, and 15 points for a six-car track completed.
A two-player game moves quickly and can be completed in 40 minutes or so, but a five-player game can stretch out to 90-minutes plus. The game says it is for players 8 year old and older and our youngest started out playing with a teammate at that age.
Ticket to Ride won the 2004 Spiel des Jahres for best new game and designer Alan Moon won for top design. There also are plenty of subsequent expansion options such as USA 1910, Europe, Europa 1912, Asia, India, France, Poland Japan, etc., that are really fun and First Journey, which is targeted to the younger player.
BONUS: Days of Wonder has a iOS/Google Play app for Ticket to Ride developed by Asmodee Digital that translates really well to a mobile device. Because of all of the moving parts, I was worried about how it would cram into a mobile device screen, but they did a nice job with the setup. It’s fun and easy to play, and I also found it helpful for developing more aggressive strategies to use when playing the board game. A new version from Marmalade Game Studio is also in the works for a planned release on Dec. 12, 2023. Price for the new Dec. 12 release will be $4.99
THE SKINNY: This game is best with four players or more and really can work for up to eight players. It’s terrific around holidays as a game players of all ages can play and participate. There is a main board with 25 words (each team has eight or nine words) and players split into two teams and give one-word clues to their teammates to try to get them to guess all of their team’s words. The first team to clear their board wins. This one is also the most reasonably priced.
IN DEPTH: The board starts with five rows of five words (or pictures if you get Codenames Pictures) for 25 total words. Separate into two teams (red/blue) and use a random “key” card that shows each team’s spymaster which words are theirs and you try to give clues to get your teammates to guess the correct words.
The team that goes first starts with nine words, while the other team begins with eight. There are also eight words that are “bystanders” and one “assassin.” If your teammate(s) guess the assassin it is an automatic loss. Whichever team clears its board first wins.
The idea is to find a word that will direct your team to clear two or three words in one shot and the spymaster has the ability to dole out the number of guesses. Let’s say three of your words are court, block, and board. You might say, “Basketball, three” with basketball the clue and your team should be looking for three different words. But if, say, the word bank, like bank shot, or bounce is also on the board and one of the other team’s words, or worse, the assassin, you might have to rethink that clue.
If your team guessed court, you would cover that word with your color spy and they would get another guess. If they next guessed block, you would do the same and get a third guess, but if your teammates guessed bounce, the other team would get to cover their word and your team’s turn is then over.
Codenames moves fast and close friends, siblings, spouses seem to have an advantage as teammates having known each other for a long time and experienced many of the same things. It’s great to spark critical thinking and stay sharp and there is a two-player version that is pretty fun and also serves as good practice for when you have company.
Codenames was 2016 Spiel des Jahres winner for best new game, while the game’s creator, Vlaada Chvatil, took home the Spiel des Jahres designer award.
This is definitely a go-to choice for Thanksgiving, winter holidays, etc. We also have Codenames Pictures and my son, John, asked for the Marvel edition one year for Christmas.
THE SKINNY: Dominion is a deck-building game in which you use your starting hand to add more valuable cards, such as currency and action cards, to build a more powerful deck that will allow you to acquire the most victory points. Dominion is a great game for two players and even more fun with three or four, and kids ages 10 and up should be able to pick it up fairly easily.
This is by far the most popular game in our household and when my in-laws visit we play probably 25 games in a week, so allow me to dig a little bit deeper on this last one.
IN DEPTH: The original game came out in summer 2008 and won the 2009 Spiel des Jahres award while creator Donald X. Vaccarino won the Spiel des Jahres award for game design. Since then, Dominion has released more than a dozen expansions and follow-up editions to the original including “Dominion: Intrigue,” which came out in spring 2009.
Dominion is a deck building game for 2-4 players, although you can easily play with up to six players, in which each player starts out with 10 cards: seven coppers and three estates. Estates are one of three standard types of victory cards and the objects is to finish the came with the most victory points from Estates (1), Duchys (3), and Provinces (6). The catch is that those cards are essentially dead weight in your hands, so early on the object is to use the seven coppers (worth one coin) to buy better cards like Silvers, worth two, and Golds, worth three, OR Action cards like the Smithy, which costs four coins and allows a player to draw three additional cards.
Players begin each turn with five random cards from their deck, one action, and one buy. Each turn consists of an action phase, a buy phase, and a cleanup phase.
In the action phase, you may play the action card or cards in your hand depending upon what the cards say. You start with the one action, but certain cards allow you to additional optionality. For example, a Village costs three coins and when you have one in hand you may play it for +2 cards and +1 action, gaining two cards to your hand first and then the option to play an additional action card.
So a typical first two turns might be a hand with two estates and three coppers, and the player could elect to purchase a silver for three or a Village for three. Then the player discards all of his/her cards into a discard pile and draws the other five cards from the starting hand, which would be four coppers and an estate, and purchases an action card costing up to four or a silver for three coins. Then the player shuffles the original 10 cards plus the newly acquired cards and starts again, building a hand of more valuable cards that are used to eventually add Golds and Victory cards to the hand.
The game ends when all of the Provinces are gone or any three supply piles are depleted, and players count their victory points with the best score the winner. Games take about 45 minutes.
We have the original and eight expansions, some of which are fairly complicated, that allow us to create an almost limitless number of setups as all of them can be combined. Of the expansions, we love Nocturne, Intrigue, and Seaside, and the Guilds/Cornucopia combo set was probably one of my best game purchases.
Note: This story was originally posted during the COVID-19 pandemic and has been updated.