It’s been a tradition in my family for as long as I can remember to give (and play) board games for the holidays. It turns those dramatic family arguments, discussions of politics and general disrespect into disputes over interpreting game rules. And let’s be honest: It’s way more fun to have an argument over a board game than the politics of your crazy conservative uncle.
To that end, I’ve got a few games—at varying levels of difficulty—here that I’ve been getting a lot of enjoyment out of that would be a hit as a gift, or at a family gathering of any kind.
Pandemic: This is a game where four players cooperate to end deadly outbreaks of disease around the world. Each player has a unique skill and is given a job at the CDC, and players collaborate to prevent the spread of new diseases while jetting around the world curing the old ones. It’s intense and maddening at times, but it brings out the best in a team of players. Best of all, it’s easy to learn if you’re not an experienced board gamer.
Agents of SMERSH: A slightly more complicated game along the same four-player cooperative lines, Agents of SMERSH casts each player as a secret agent with a unique set of special abilities. Players then work together to destroy the villainous head of SMERSH, Dr. Lobo. Fans of spy movies—particularly the James Bond franchise—will get a big kick out of this game. Every turn you take sends you to a new exotic city, and a random series of numbers is generated. You take those random numbers to a massive 280-page-plus scenario book that players take turns reading, like a “choose your own adventure.” You pick the skill you want to use to complete the story and roll the dice. The game itself has a lot of moving parts, but once it gets rolling, it’s a lot of fun. The play-acting of the scenario reading makes it a great party game.
Shadows Over Camelot: Another cooperative game I’ve been enjoying immensely, it works for larger groups. Up to seven players can take on the role of a Knight of the Round Table, fulfilling quests and racing against the forces of darkness. With the other knights, you’ll work to defend Camelot from invaders, slay the Black Knight, find Excalibur and seek the Holy Grail. For an added challenge, one of the players might be a traitor, which adds the element of requiring a strategic poker face. The rules can seem a bit dizzying right off the bat, but after a dry run through the game, it’s tremendous fun, offers a strategic challenge and can be won (or lost) in an hour or so.
Warhammer: Relic: This game casts two to four players as characters in the Warhammer 40,000 universe as they try to destroy whatever random event is occurring in the warp rift. Players travel the board to complete missions, kill bad guys and face insurmountable odds until they’re powerful enough to face the final challenge. For those in the know, this is actually an updated and redesigned version of an old fantasy adventure game called Talisman that was popular for years. Warhammer: Relic breathes a new science-fiction life into the game mechanics and provides a unique challenge. Be warned: At first glance, this game might seem overly complex, but it rewards clear thinkers and can be a blast to play. It’s also the sort of game you can play all day without even realizing it, as it can go on for hours with no end in sight.
Any of these four games would be a perfect addition to your game closet, and you could do worse than bringing them to a family gathering. You know, instead of getting into a drawn-out discussion about Obamacare. Or religion. Or ... whatever.
Bryan Young is the editor-in-chief of BigShinyRobot.com.