Twelve Boxes for Christmas
A dozen boardgame gift ideas for 2009
By Demian Katz, Matthew Pook, Allan Sugarbaker, Mike Sugarbaker, Lee Valentine, and Andy Vetromile
2009 has been a great year for board games, and the holidays provide an
excellent excuse to get folks together and try a few. For nine years now, OgreCave
has offered advice on these staples of the gaming hobby, and we hope you will find the gift giving inspiration you need below. Stay away from
boring gifts like Candy Land and Monopoly this year, and
give one of the great games from our list below. Or better yet, ask for
a few of them yourself.
Rio Grande Games, $59.95
Perhaps you or a loved one suffers from a crippling addiction to Tower Defense.
Help might be on the way, but it sure won't be coming from designer Vlaada Chvatil,
who followed up the gird-your-loins-then-suffer thrillfest Galaxy Trucker with this
insane co-op simulation of the defense of a severely overmatched little starship.
Space Alert employs RoboRally-esque gameplay to prove that the tower-defense
gameplay model has range and depth. Sealing the deal are the two audio CDs that time
the phases and events of the game (and sometimes fuzz out, forbidding the players
from talking!). For multimedia immersive experiences, you won't be finding better at
a tabletop game shop this year.
Wells Expeditions, $34.95/starter
This mass-combat-on-the-cheap game made a big splash amongst video gamers at PAX
as well as at Gen Con, and it's indeed fast, fun, deep and supremely flexible. Starters
are playable, but: want to give a gaming gift a little more on the scale of
Beatles Rock Band? Ladies and gentlemen, may we suggest the complete Arcane Legions
army: one starter, one cavalry box, one infantry box, and a full set of boosters
(netting you one of each possible booster-bound unit), for a total of $160 or so.
Now that is a set suitable for the high rollers. (Wells Expeditions are fools not
to package up complete armies in one box this way, even if they can't quite get
them into Best Buy alongside all the Guitar Heroism.) Plus if you have a Centurion
Club membership, you can now get fully painted and assembled army boxes ($45 per),
saving your giftee the sometimes-considerable hassle of de-spruing their troops.
Fantasy Flight Games, $59.95
Mankind has outgrown its terran birthplace and must strike out Ad
Astra – "to the stars." Humanity, evolved into five subspecies,
competes to reach rich new star systems and planets. New colonies offer
new resources – ore, water, food – with which to expand interstellar
holdings. Players take actions (trading, exploring, building, scoring)
by playing cards from their deck, but these are first placed on the
planning board, a sort of timeline of events. They take turns placing
their cards, so they may choose where in the turn the card is executed,
but once they come up, everyone takes that same action. Timing and
anticipating opponents is key; if someone else can be counted on to
initiate an action you want, you get more done in a turn. Should you
score spaceships early in the round while you own a majority, or wait
until turn's end so you can increase your fleet? With variable turns,
the special abilities of alien artifacts, and a Catan-like style
of play that eschews the randomness of dice, Ad Astra is never
the same game twice.
Steve Jackson Games, $39.95
In what might be our favorite bidding game since Power Grid or
Ben Hurt, Steve Jackson Games makes nefarious bribery and
strongarm tactics into a thinking man's frantic strategy experience. In
Revolution, you are plotting to control a town by building
support from within by any means necessary. To place influence markers
on the board and attempt to score locations, you must secretly exert
what little power you have each turn by bidding on the townsfolk you
want working for you. Certain townsfolk must be handled differently than
others – the Captain is unimpressed by threats of Force, and must
be Blackmailed or bribed instead; the Spy cannot be Blackmailed, as that
is his speciality; and the Rogue only wants for Gold. Depending on which
people you won control of in the blind bid, you get a different amount of Force,
Blackmail, or Gold the next turn, and hopefully begin placing influence
markers, or even switching existing markers around. The rules are very quick to learn, and entire game lasts less
than an hour. Viva la Revolution!
Asmodee Editions, $69.99
The Polynesian island of Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island, is
famous for its moai – the great stone heads. In Giants, three to
five players portray one of the fractious clans building the best
monuments before the land's resources run out. Families bid to create
the grandest moai, and must wisely assign workers not only to work on
the statues and their decorative headdresses, but to transport them to
the most coveted ahu – platforms for displaying the busts. Assisted by
limited supplies of tree trunks for rolling the stones about, tribesmen
form lines from the quarries to the shoreline. Whoever makes best use of
his manpower gets points for the size of the moai and the quality of its
resting place. Players may make use of any tribe's workers if they're
willing to give points to rival factions. The clan's shaman can assist,
but his bailiwick is securing additional workers or resources. These
many options, plus the highly intuitive mechanics, make this strategy
game entertaining, quick, and replayable.
The cities of India are lined with silk, and as new merchants, each
player is out to make their fortune buying and selling the colorful
cloth. Each turn, players move their elephants around the countryside to
take advantage of the silk trade's opportunities, carrying the
brightly-colored bales to whichever city will offer the most rupees.
Bonuses are gained from visiting the most markets, building palaces
along trade routes, and garnering loyal clients. Part market
manipulation, part positional strategy, this game still manages to
retain its simplicity. Playable in as little as 30 minutes,
Bombay is a fun, light introduction to more complex titles,
though its gameplay is streamlined enough to make sure it won't be
gathering dust on the shelf.
BattleTech: 25 Years of Art & Fiction
Catalyst Game Labs; $59.99
It seems strange to think that FASA's, then WizKid's, and now Catalyst
Game Lab's BattleTech game has been letting us pit giant
battlemechs – walking fighting machines – against each other
for a quarter of a century now. The wargame is easily expanded upon,
allowing players to take their games from skirmishes between small units
up to larger battles, adding new designs, more detailed rules, and even
miniatures. Do not forget the setting for BattleTech,
the Inner Sphere of the 31st Century is as detailed and as developed as
the game itself, such that it has not only supported the game, but also
one hundred novels, numerous computer games, and even a cartoon.
BattleTech: 25 Years of Art & Fiction celebrates all of these and more,
presenting them alongside the very best of the game's art and 18 new
short stories by some of the game's best fiction authors. There's also
a complete bibliography, perfect for the collector, but really this
is a very attractive way in which to be introduced to the BattleTech
universe and to celebrate it. (We still recommend the Classic BattleTech Intro Box Set as the
best way to start playing – look back at our 2007 list write-up for the details.)
Days of Wonder; $50
Can't make up your mind on what category of game to play? We've got the
game for you: Small World is one part wargame, one part resource
management game, and a dash of CCG-style mechanics is thrown in, all
with a fantasy-based world domination theme pasted on top. The goal is
to amass victory points by controlling regions on a fantasy world map.
Players control one of several fantasy races, each with a randomly
determined Special Power, and dominate sections of the map each turn.
But no one race can be victorious at for the entire game – manpower gets stretched thin, casualties mount – so as one race's time
begins to fade, the player can elect to send it into Decline and choose a
new race to add to the board. Small World is a reworking of a
1999 game (Vinci) by the same designer, Philippe Keyaerts; this
time around the game is streamlined, it's a bit more chaotic, and has a
great production value. How can you go wrong with a game that just won
Games Magazine's "Game of the Year" title?
Aspiring conquerors would do well to read our full review of Small World.
The Stars Are Right
Steve Jackson Games, $27.95
In this game of Mythos-themed strategy, 25 double-sided tiles represent
the night sky above, and if the right patterns can be found there
– or created – you'll be one happy cultist. Two to four
players compete to find the right patterns in the tile-grid sky, which
allows them to summon otherworldly beings (from a hand of cards). By
invoking the powers of the Great Old Ones and their minions (by playing
cards), players will be able to manipulate the alignment of the stars
– the more powerful the Mythos creature, the easier to push, pull,
swap or flip sky tiles and create patterns that summon even bigger
critters. Summon one of the big guys to win, and begin the task of
enslaving mankind. Ultra-cute illustrations by Goomi complete the
package, and make The Stars Are Right the right game to pick up
Tales of the Arabian Nights
Z-Man Games; $59.99
In the eighties, a handful of "paragraph system" games tried to merge
the best elements of gamebooks and board games. Tales of the Arabian
Nights was one of the best, and a re-release has been long anticipated.
The game allows players to roam the world of Arabian legend,
encountering all kinds of characters and creatures, seeking magical
artifacts and new skills while attempting to avoid numerous perils. The
flavor of the ancient tales is captured well, and players have a lot of
freedom to choose their style of play. There's a certain degree of
randomness, but that just means high replay value and good stories to
tell even when you lose. The new edition features a thick book that more
than doubles the number of adventures available, streamlines play by
replacing fiddly little counters with information-bearing cards, and
(perhaps most important at holiday time) comes in a box so incredibly
heavy that it's bound to impress the recipient of your gift!
Space Hulk: Third Edition
Games Workshop, $99.95
Why Games Workshop won't simply open the manufacturing floodgates and
keep an edition of Space Hulk in print is beyond us (artificial
rarity is for the weak). For now, we'll have to settle for this year's
limited edition release, the third edition of this massive board game,
complete with its interchangable ship corridors, lumbering war-hero
Space Marine figures, and skittering, death-dealing Genestealer figures.
In a nutshell, Space Hulk is like Aliens with heavy
ordinance and no stupid colonists to save. Two sides play through a
variety of missions, with the Marines forced to follow a time limit each
turn to ratchet up the anxiety level. Tracking down a copy may be
tricky, but for many gamers, Space Hulk holds a perpetual place
on the "must own" list – and this version would certainly be
cheaper right now than collector's prices of previous incarnations. If
this all-time classic of miniatures skirmish gaming doesn't get you
amped up, you're just not playing it right.
Fireside Games; $35
An enjoyable debut offering from a new game publisher, Castle Panic
continues the cooperative trend of recent years. Players defend a castle
at the center of the board from wave after wave of orcs and goblins by
playing cards to wound monsters and rebuild damaged walls. The monsters
always seem to move a little faster than you want them to, and
limitations on how many cards you can trade with other players force
agonizing decisions as you try to hold back the tide. While the gameplay
is just as challenging as other co-ops like Shadows Over Camelot or
Pandemic, the rules are a little simpler, making this a good choice
for younger gamers or those nights where you feel like a game but don't
feel like reading a ton of rules to get up and running.
And we're in bonus rounds once again: here's a couple more games we couldn't bear to leave off the list...
Pandemic: On the Brink
Z-Man Games; $29.99
Christmas is the perfect time for a plague-ridden expansion to
Pandemic, the popular cooperative game of disease eradication. The
expansion adds new Roles, new Events, and some petri dishes for storing
all your game components. It also adds three new modes of play: fight
against a fifth mutant virus that can pop up anywhere without warning;
try to eradicate a virulent disease strain that's potent and spreads
like wildfire; or fight all the normal diseases while racing against
time to stop a dread bioterrorist played by one of the players. Some
interesting stuff here, although you shouldn't expect to fit everything
easily into the original Pandemic box after you pick up this expansion.
To be properly prepared, the CDC advises that you read our full review of
Pandemic: On the Brink.
Chaos in the Old World
Fantasy Flight Games, $59.95
With as many SKUs as Fantasy Flight puts out, it'd be weird if one or
two a year weren't home runs; that said, this was a great year for game
design in Minnesota, with perhaps no higher single example than Chaos
in the Old World. Two to four players assume the roles of the great
Chaos gods of Warhammer Fantasy, and proceed to beat on each other's
followers with a mix of straight-up dice-chucking and cutthroat
placement of both single-turn spells and (hopefully) persistent forces.
Each god has a different way to earn victory points, and in general the
game's just a delicious bouillabaisse of elements that will be familiar
to board game fans but blend beautifully and originally here. We don't
know of any better introduction to the tasty combo of gods that
constitutes the Warhammer Chaos pantheon – and it's still a great time
if you don't care about all that.
There you have it – the third of our holiday gift selection lists
from 2009. Don't forget this is an annual tradition for OgreCave as
well, so you can get ideas from lists of holidays past or continue looking over our other 2009 gift lists. You can
feel confident that each of these items will make great gifts. That
annual gift list from the newspaper's movie critic? Not so much.