It’s days into your family vacation and you’ve run out of things to talk about. Your brother has hashed out all the hometown gossip, and you and your father have dutifully avoided talking politics—all that’s left to do is watch the Food Network and eat leftovers. It’s this situation that board games were made for.
Board games can gel everyone together, sure, but they’re also excellent for undermining your upstart kid sister. Unfortunately, board games can be intimidating. Aunt Jean might find the idea of tokens and miniatures and 20-sided dice a little daunting. That’s why I’ve assembled a list of simple but rewarding games for your family, who are quickly getting sick of each other but feel obligated to stay in the same room anyway. Don’t worry—none of them are Pictionary or Scrabble.
Coup is a card game about lying, but only if you want it to be. The goal is to be the last person standing. Each player has two powers they can play based on which character cards they draw from a stack. The player can use those powers or bluff about what powers they have to knock out opponents. But if they’re caught lying, they’re knocked out. Rounds only last about 15 minutes.
“It’s like the card game Bullshit,” I explained to my family yesterday. They rolled their eyes. The entire time I explained Coup’s rules, which, I might add, are very simple, they complained. Finally, we got to playing. They picked it up immediately. In the beginning of round two, my brother had invoked the Duke character’s powers with theatrical hesitancy and unsureness. When I called him out on bullshitting, he grinned an awful grin. He was the Duke. I was so played.
Codenames scratches the same itch as stodgy old favorites like Taboo and Pictionary while being significantly less cliched. In Codenames, players are split into two teams, each headed by a clue-giver. There are 25 random word cards on the table, with some belonging to the red team and others to the blue team. The clue-givers offer one-word hints, sometimes with multiple answers, to steer their teammates toward the right words. The trick is to give hints broad enough to encompass several of your team’s words without accidentally misleading teammates into guessing the other team’s. The first team that guesses all their words wins.
If you’re a part of a family that enjoys yelling at each other, I recommend Codenames. If you’re part of a family that does not enjoy yelling at each other but prefers silent I’m-smarter-than-you gloating, I also recommend Codenames.
In this tactical gem-collecting game, players increase their wealth by gathering gem tokens. With those gem tokens, players strategically upgrade their wares, acquiring new bonus gems and points. Each player’s turn consists of one action. Whoever reaches 15 prestige points first wins.
There are so many strategies for going about this game. A lot of shot-in-the-dark novice strategies can work (like hoarding gems—but I don’t recommend this if you want to make it out of the holidays alive). Splendor also accommodates long-considered, chess-like playstyles for the tacticians in your family. Since there are a lot of ways to go about it, it’s enjoyable for all levels of board-gamer.
Betrayal at House on the Hill
Players explore a haunted house tile by tile in this Lovecraftian horror game. Every time a player enters a doorway, a new room tile is revealed. Spooky stuff happens along the way: haunted mirrors, ghost encounters, picking up cursed objects. After players encounter enough rooms with “haunt” icons, one player betrays the rest in any of 50 scenarios. Halfway through, the game shifts from exploration into a cooperative boss battle-slash-ghost-hunt..
This game is remarkably simple to learn but has great pay-offs. The narratives that form are totally memorable and wild. It’s exciting every step of the way and eats up a good hour of time that might otherwise be spent arguing about politics.
Rewordable is a word game that will tickle moms addicted to the Scrabble iPhone app or grandpas who love crosswords. Players take turns arranging word fragment cards into words. On their turn, players can also steal each other’s words if they can expand on them with other fragment cards. The player with the most points at the end wins.
The best family board games have simple rules but high skill caps, and Rewordable is a perfect example of that. Sure, constructing “bread” is a safe bet. But “consequential” earns more points—and will earn more points for your grandpa if he happens to have an “in-” card.