For Life, Not Just For Christmas: the five best board games I've played recently
Updated: Apr 29
Those of you who regularly read this blog will know that I tend to just bang on about whatever’s been on my mind during the past fortnight… and as it’s been Christmas time, and I’ve been lucky enough to spend it visiting family up north, that has of course meant only one thing: BOARD GAMES!!!
I’m not sure exactly when it became traditional to play board games at Christmas time, but it is most definitely ‘a thing’; perhaps it’s simply the only time when people are generally hanging around, off work, and with enough spare time/lack of excuses to indulge in a bit of table-top competition. For a certified board game nerd like me, it’s the only time of year when victims – sorry, I mean 'fellow players' – are likely to be available for whatever multi-person gaming extravaganza I’ve been dying to enjoy since the previous Yuletide, and this year was no exception!
So if the board game bug hasn’t yet left your system (or if you’re just extremely organised and want to firm up your gaming plans in good time for Christmas 2020…) here are five fantastic games I’ve recently played and thoroughly enjoyed. I’m avoiding the obvious classics like Monopoly, Scrabble and Risk, so hopefully there are one or two here you haven’t played before – if Santa didn’t already bring them, add them to your list for next year!
1). The Settlers Of Catan
This game totally deserves its massive popularity. Its simple premise – that you build settlements around hexagonal tiles that generate corn, wood or other resources when their numbers come up on the dice – creates a huge sense of satisfaction when your plan is working, and howls of frustration when it isn’t! Throw in the ‘robber’ that enables you to wreak havoc amongst your opponents’ colonies every time you roll a 7, as well as other strategies that grant bonus points for building the longest road or the largest army, and there’s enough intrigue here to keep the game fresh and challenging while remaining straightforward enough to for younger players to understand (10 years and up).
However, the game’s real ingenuity lies in its self-regulating economy and trading system – the randomised configuration of the tiles and their rates of resource production ensure that no two games are alike, and that players will end up haggling with each other to cut a mutually beneficial deal. Once again, it’s great for kids to see how an effective ‘win-win’ negotiation works… and equally enjoyable to wring your opponents dry when they are desperate for wool and you’ve totally cornered the market on sheep!
If you do ever grow weary of the base game, Catan also boasts countless expansion packs that really mix things up; I haven’t tried them all, but those that I have were definitely enjoyable, although I think the base game is so close to perfect that they probably aren’t needed.
The only downside of Catan is that the base game is suitable for 3 or 4 players only – some of the expansions enable you to add additional players, but it sadly cannot be enjoyed as a 2-player affair.
Another great family game, which can be enjoyed by anyone from age 7 and up, Carcassone again centres around building and resource management rather than direct conflict. It is named after the extremely picturesque, historical, fortified French city, and like its namesake involves the gradual construction of a sprawling metropolis of roads, settlements and monasteries.
Each turn, players place a single tile, as well as an optional ‘meeple’ (a word I had never heard before I played this game, and never get tired of saying!) to score points. It is immensely satisfying to watch a huge and unique world gradually develop… and also (of course) to cackle wickedly when sneaky placement of a tile scuppers your opponent’s attempt to complete a piece of big-scoring architecture!
Also like Catan, Carcassone also has a ton of available expansion packs, and you can even get a ‘big box’ version of the game that comes complete with all eleven of them! Unlike other games, it’s possible to play Carcassone with all of these expansions at once, significantly lengthening the game and increasing its complexity, meaning that the challenge can be scaled to meet the experience of the players (or the amount of time you can persuade them to part with!)
Carcassone is suitable for 5 players (6 with the expansions), and is also thoroughly enjoyable with just 2 of you – a major advantage over Catan in my opinion.
The previous games have been largely focused on peaceful resource-harvesting and building, and Civilisation also falls into this category… at least at first. An adaptation of the famed video game franchise, the early stages of a Civilisation session share the video games’ focus on exploration and scientific advancement, enabling more enhancements to be made to your ever-growing empire of newly-constructed cities.
But your expansion will inevitably lead you into conflict with your opponents (the game is suitable for 2-4 players) and this is where Civilisation really shines. You are forced to expend precious trade points on expanding your military capabilities – not just units and armies, but on the technology that will improve them, lest you find enemy tanks rumbling over the horizon towards your hopelessly obsolete archers and pikemen – and the effective management of this trade-off is where the game is won or lost. Spend too much on your armed forces and you will allow another wily player to sneak an economic, cultural or scientific victory (there are four different ways to win in Civilisation), but spend too little and you’ll find yourself crushed and eliminated by an aggressive opponent.
I absolutely love Civilisation (even though one of my cities was unceremoniously nuked in my last game!), but do be warned that it is pretty complicated on your first play-through, and takes several hours to play even with people that are familiar with the game. So you’ll need to invest a good half-day if you want to try out this one… but it’s more than worth it for the satisfaction of masterminding a well-planned sneak attack on an opponent’s undefended capital city!
By now, you’ve probably figured out that I’m (ahem) ever so slightly competitive. So I normally shy away from co-operative games, which involve you and your fellow players teaming up to collectively defeat the game itself, and it was with some reluctance that I settled down for a game of Pandemic at the strenuous insistence of my little brother. But it turned out to be well worth it!
2-4 players attempt to battle 4 separate contagious diseases that are spreading ruthlessly across the globe. Victory is a question of effective collaboration, and shrewd deployment of each player’s unique skills (established at the outset by randomised ‘roles’ including scientists, medics and dispatchers). But the clock is ticking (thanks to an ever-dwindling deck of cards), and any wasted move might lead to an unstoppable outbreak – I’ve found that games usually come right down to the wire in terms of success or failure, keeping it intense and exciting right until the very end.
Pandemic also boasts a short playing time (it claims 45 minutes but realistically I’d say more like 60-90), and because of its co-operative nature, kids of any age can be made to feel involved, although the game itself recommends ages 8+. Your younger family members might also enjoy naming the four diseases before starting the game… ahhh, who am I kidding, that’s my favourite part too! I’m just glad <insert childish obscene fictional disease here> isn’t a real medical condition…
5). The Thing: Infection At Outpost 31
Okay, so this last one is pretty obscure. But you don’t actually have to be a fan of John Carpenter’s seminal sci-fi horror movie masterpiece The Thing to enjoy this… you just have to have to have a large group of mates as devious as you are (the game suggests 4-8 but you need at least 6 players to really enjoy it) and about 2 hours to spare.
The game puts you in the film’s iconic Antarctic research facility, where a spreading outbreak of mutating alien life is threatening the survival of the research crew (i.e. the players). You work together to proceed around the base, eliminating the monstrous, malformed 'Things'… but all the while knowing that at least one of the players is secretly harbouring the alien infection themselves. While the goal of most players is therefore simply to survive and escape on the chopper, the Thing's objective is to remain undetected while secretly sabotaging the alien extermination missions. Ultimately, the Thing must successfully convince their fellow players (others of whom may have since become infected themselves) that they are a bona-fide human, or face the wrath of Kurt Russell’s flamethrower.
In one recent game, I managed to successfully convince my entire family that my little brother was a vile, insidious alien, leading to his ultimate torching… only to reveal as we boarded the helicopter that the real Thing was in fact me all along! I genuinely can’t think of an experience I have enjoyed as much as this in recent memory, which perhaps tells you more about me than about the game...
Well, that’s it for now... I hope this has been an entertaining and useful whistle-stop tour of some of my board gaming highlights! Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any thoughts, feedback, or other recommendations - I'm always on the lookout for more board games to splash out on!
Until next time,