My family has two holiday traditions: watching themovies as we approach Christmas, and for as long as the relatives can stand to be around each other. Here’s the problem: In mixed company, with a range of ages represented, finding the perfect game to bring the entire family together is a huge challenge. My wife and I can spend a whole day playing intense , but not everyone in our family is .
So what is the perfect family game? It needs to be accessible, appealing to people with a wide range of interests, quick to set up and maybe even easy to drop midway through. If you have younger kids or older adults intent on never learning new tricks, finding that balance of complexity for the invested and simplicity for the rest can seem impossible.
No single game does all of that, but these are the best games to accomplish each of those. I’ve played every one of these games, and I’ve played most of them dozens of times. After years of informal research playing board games, here are the best family games you can pick up this holiday season.
King of Tokyo has been a longtime favorite family board game in our house because it’s easy to pick up (even for younger players), quick to play and still strategically satisfying. Each player takes control of a monster — think Godzilla or King Kong — and attempts to control Tokyo on the central game board. What ensues is a fun and often hilarious game of dice-rolling (imagine Yahtzee, but using dice with claws, energy bolts and points on them), aggressive play and chaotic attempts to wrest control of Tokyo from your competitors. The game ends when only one monster remains alive, or when someone reaches 20 points. It’s simple, but endlessly fun, even in a mixed crowd.
Just One is an open-structured game, in which everyone tries to help a single person guess a word or phrase by writing their own unique clues on personal whiteboards.
If you’re looking for something a little more cutthroat for a family game night, Codenames is a great alternative to Just One. It’s been around for years, and for a good reason: essentially, partners try to give single-word clues to get each other to guess random-but-related words, in a race to see which team can win first.
This is a super simple game to pick up and play, and just as easy to drop when food arrives or people want to move on. Essentially, a card with two categories is revealed (say, “easy to sit on” or “hard to sit on”), and one player is shown a meter with a point somewhere between the two ends. They then must come up with a word that will get everyone else to guess where that point falls (for instance, if the point was close to “hard to sit on,” I might say “cactus”). It’s a simple game, but quickly gets a group talking and laughing about the weird disagreements that never would have surfaced without Wavelength (like, “How hard is it really to sit on a cactus?”).
In Magic Maze, four wizards are trying to shoplift from a mall and escape before the time runs out. There are two problems: players can only communicate by passing a nondescript game piece back and forth (that means no talking or pointing), and each player is responsible for a movement rather than a character. Yes, that means one player is responsible for making every wizard turn left, use an escalator or just walk forward. What results is a near-silent, yet chaotic experience that will stretch your family’s nonverbal communication to its limit. If that’s the sort of thing you’re into, winning the game together is about as satisfying as board games get.
Indie Boards and Cards
Plenty of bluffing games are on the market, but The Resistance is one of the best for large groups. It’s a simple game of deception in which some players attempt to mount a resistance against an oppressive regime through covert operations, and the rest of the players try to stop them. Problem is, no one knows who’s who.
If you’re looking for something that is a little more of a strategy game with more depth (and maybe a little less character assassination to get your parents to believe you more than your siblings), Sheriff of Nottingham balances a fun market-building mechanic with the intrigue of sneaking goods past (or just bribing) whichever player is filling the Sheriff’s shoes at the moment.
Decrypto is a great game for fans of code-breaking. Teams split up on opposite sides of a table try to send codes back and forth to their teammates, and their opponents attempt to intercept those communiques. If you love puzzle-solving, Decrypto is a competitive and cooperative game that’ll satisfy that craving.
If letter and word games are more your bag, Letter Jam might be a better fit for you. Players each get a letter that they cannot see, then take turns spelling words with other people’s letters to try to signal who has which letters. For word lovers, this is a great game with endless replayability.
Cranium is an oldie but a goodie: It’s perfect for bringing together kids as young as 5 or 6 with the rest of the family. This classic game includes everything from sculpting clay to Pictionary-like challenges and pop culture trivia.
If the kids you have in mind are a little older, an alternative might be Ticket to Ride, a fun train-themed building game with simple enough mechanics for an elementary-age kid to enjoy, but enough complex strategy to keep everyone else interested.
Magic Maze may be cooperative, but the lack of verbal communication makes it feel less cooperative than other games of the same type. So I’m giving best cooperative game to Forbidden Desert. While it’s a fairly simple game to play, fun elements like the ever-shifting board and unique actions available to each player make this a fun game for mixed company.
If you’re looking for a game that is competitive, imaginative and also allows players of different levels freedom to challenge themselves how they want, Karuba is perfect. Each player charts their own path through an individual, jungle-themed player board, in search of ancient treasure. This is accomplished through simple tile placement, and while the competition is fun, no one will be able to interfere (too much) with your carefully laid plans.
If you’re a board game enthusiast like me, it’s tough to find people to play the complex strategy games with. And yet, there are so many types of games to enjoy, from deck building to worker placement games and everything in between. But some games can help casual board game players make the leap to more complex products: think Settlers of Catan, but for 2021.
One of the best games for this, in my experience, is The Quest for El Dorado. With light deck building elements mixed in, El Dorado lets players race across an Amazonian rain forest to find the lost city of gold. It’s a fun game with light strategy elements, and when it comes to the final stretch of turns, dashing for the finish line, everyone will be thankful they tried something new.
For more great games, check out our, the , the and the to bring together the family during this year’s gatherings.