2016 was a great year for board games, with independent publishers unleashing their creativity in the form of runaway Kickstarter campaigns like Exploding Kittens...to some great classic European board games like 7 Wonders crossing the pond to make a big splash here in the United States...to reigning champions of fun returning to dominate the ring, like Ticket to Ride.
To round up a great year for family-friendly tabletop entertainment, here are Amazon's top picks for the most amazing board games going into 2017.
The product of a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign orchestrated by the creators of indie comics site The Oatmeal, Exploding Kittens is a devilishly funny take on what's essentially Russian Roulette. And the premise is just as simple: players are drawing cards until they draw an Exploding Kitten, at which point they lose, because...exploding kitten.
Of course, that's not all you do; other cards may be played during your turn that grant special benefits and gameplay effects. For instance, the Attack card allows a player to end his turn without needing to draw a card, while the next player must take two turns, thereby increasing her chances to draw the Exploding Kitten.
Why Exploding Kittens? Because The Oatmeal, That's Why
The Defuse effect allows for a player to return the Exploding Kitten card into the deck if they happen to draw it, and then keep playing. And the ever party-crashing Nope card ensures that you can easily thwart your opponent's best-laid plans by immediately stopping their actions.
With game rules that are exceedingly simple to explain and fast, furious (furrious?) and laugh out loud funny gameplay, it's easy to see why Exploding Kittens is hands down an unstoppable juggernaut among tabletop games for the year.
And if that's not enough exploding or kittens for you, the game is even available as an app for iOS and Android devices, complete with expansions and mobile-exclusive cards not seen in the tabletop version!
Exploding Kittens is playable by 2-5 players (can be boosted up to 9 players if combined with a second deck), ages 7 and up. A typical game takes only 2 minutes to learn and 15 minutes to play.
During my first play session of Codenames, the rules took less than 10 minutes to explain, then our spy teams hit the board for many exciting, fast-playing hours of wild to educated guessing, in-joke deciphering, and good ol' fashioned elementary, my dear Watson.
Codenames is a game of subterfuge and deduction that's every bit as easy to learn as it is to play. Players are grouped up into teams of spies and win by guessing the (randomly determined) Codenames of the members of the opposing teams.
Each team is designated a Spymaster, who holds a very special cipher that reveals to them many important clues. It's up to the Spymaster - arguably the most challenging role for a player to assume, but also the most fun - to not only give their team clues about the identities of the enemy spies concealed in the code words that make up the game board, but also to make sure they don't slip up and compromise their own agents in the field.
It's up to the agents to correctly interpret the clues given by their Spymaster (and/or, if they're observant enough, to exploit the clues given by the opposing Spymaster) to locate and eliminate their rivals before the same is done to them.
Each Codename is made up of a random combination of words that sound innocuous enough on their own, such as 'Castle' or 'Butterfly,' making it so that the possibilities for inference, allusion, and downright nasty deception virtually endless. Adding to the complexity are words that are sometimes similar, such as 'Stronghold' or 'Winged,' to go with the above examples, so the Spymaster must work extra hard at giving just the right kind of clues, without giving too much away.
For fans of wordy puzzlers, deep psychological strategy, and armchair espionage, or folks just looking for a great easy-to-pick-up board game that's lots of fun, Codenames is not to be missed.
Codenames is playable by 2-8 or more players, ages 14 and up, and each game usually takes only 15-20 minutes!
The 201X's have been a great decade for Euro board games, and 7 Wonders is on top of the world. Created by Antoine Bauza of Belgium, 7 Wonders is a dedicated deck card game that was a great big hit in Belgium, and over the years has won more than 30 gaming awards. It's definitely won over international critics as well, and ranks highly as one of this year's top board games on Amazon.
In terms of complexity, 7 Wonders is a bit on the beefy side, which should come as no surprise to lovers of dyed-in-the-wool Euro board games. Each player is given a randomly selected game board called a 'Wonder' board, with each representing – you guessed it, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Interestingly, each game board is double-sided, with one side depicting a Wonder that's easier to build and better suited for novices to the game, and the flip side representing a version of the Wonder tailored for more experienced strategists, which grant additional effects and twists that take place during gameplay.
It's up to each player to gather the necessary materials and resources, and build each structure of their Wonder to completion. Resources are represented by a deck of cards, which are drawn, played, and then passed on to the next player. Over the course of gameplay, which takes place over three Great Ages, players are collecting resources, denying them to their opponents, or even trading with their neighbors to ensure that they can build the necessary structures.
At the end of each Age, effects come into play, military conflicts are resolved, and victory points are tallied. Players win by not only completing their Wonder, but by hedging their civilization to dominate in various fields, such as Civil, Scientific, and Commercial advancement.
And if all that weren't enough, 7 Wonders has released an impressive trove of official expansions so far: from Leaders, which introduces everything from famous historical figures you can recruit to lead your civilization to the Golden Age...to the Tower of Babel, whose monumental construction you can participate in, in addition to your actual Wonder, to a rotating pantheon of gods to appease.
All aboard! Ticket to Ride is an amazing German-style board game designed by Alan R. Moon, with fantastic illustrations provided by Julien Delval and Cyrille Daujean. With numerous international awards under its belt, from the coveted Spiel des Jahres to the Diana Jones award to the As d'Or Jeu de l'anee to the 2005 International Gamers Award, Ticket to Ride is a modern day board game for the ages.
And it doesn't take long after unboxing for one to realize that every bit of the game, from its adorable miniature train pieces to its lovingly rendered artwork, is more than worthy of all its time aboard the, uh, hype train.
In Ticket to Ride, players are railroad barons during the golden age of the locomotive. Each player is dealt four colored train car cards along with three Destination Ticket cards. The train cars are played to claim routes, whereas the Destination Tickets represent the end-game goals for each player.
Completing Destination Tickets nets a hefty number of bonus points, however, failing to complete a Ticket causes a player to lose points, so it pays to keep track of where you're going, and how you're planning to get there! Once the game is afoot, each player takes turns drafting and collecting new train car cards, claiming routes and tallying scores.
Longer routes cost more train cars to claim, but are worth more points. So all along the way, you'll be competing for the most coveted routes, while trying to suss out your competitor's destinations and hedge your way to victory.
The Best Part About Ticket to Ride? Folks Probably Won't Get It
Here's a confession: it might not sound like the most entertaining thing ever to hear someone talk about how “There's nothing quite like snatching up the last leg of your Ticket from Los Angeles to Denver... by way of Montreal Canada!”, no matter how many exclamation points they append to it. But wait till it happens to you. It's a beautiful thing.
Ticket to Ride is beautiful in its simplicity, and utterly engrossing in its playability. If you're part of a dedicated gaming group, or if your family of board gamers includes kids mature enough to grasp its brilliant strategic depth (the box suggests an audience of children ages 7-9), Ticket to Ride is definitely one train you won't want to miss.
With its gorgeous hand-painted art style, Tokaido's mechanics follows a linear point to point movement set-up: you and other players are travelers on the magnificent “East Sea Road,” one of the most famous coastal highways that spanned the length of feudal Japan. On your way from west to east, your travelers will meet and hear stories from interesting people, sample exquisite meals, purchase beautiful souvenirs, explore gorgeous landscapes, visit temples and other exciting locations.
To win at Tokaido, points are tallied representing how rich and fulfilling each player's travels are. Players have multiple options for gaining points. They can collect pieces of a panorama that assemble into a sprawling landscape of the various sights on the East Sea Road; visit a souvenir shop to pick up a set of curios, like fashionable gaeta sandals to handwoven kimonos; enjoy a relaxing soak in a mountain hot spring; meet with interesting characters along their way, such as samurai, nobles and shrine-maidens; donate to one of the dozens of impressive Shinto temples along the road; and eat delicious meals ordered at the inns that they'll stop to rest in at the end of each day.
At the end of their journey, when the players, at last, arrive at Edo, they'll each regale each other of their experiences, tally their points, and decide on who had the most amazing cross-country road trip.
Adding to the fun is that each traveler has special perks and abilities.
Sasayakko the Geisha, for example, knows how to shop for the best deals, and enjoys a constant buy 2, get a third item for free sale at any souvenir shop. The Merchant, being a champion re-seller at Etsy, is able to purchase local souvenirs at Villages for only one coin. Mitsukuni the Elder gains more points when he stops at hot springs, where he's able to relax and rejuvenate his weary old bones. Kinko the Ronin is a striking and intimidating character that gets a discount on meals at every inn he stops at, or maybe he's just excellent at getting his Groupon on...and more!
For such a deep and robust game, the pacing of Tokaido is relaxed, meditative, and at times even tranquil. As more than one player has remarked at our sessions, “This is one of the most mellow cutthroat games I've ever played.”
Indeed, make no mistake about it: Tokaido is a game about doing things, but each location along the road can only accommodate one or two visitors at most, because anyone who's ever visited a popular travel destination during tourist season can attest to this: it's impossible to get a good selfie if your field of view is saturated with everyone else's selfie sticks.
Usually within the first few turns, the game turns into a traffic jam where you're not just trying to get to the best locations, you're also trying to deny them to your opponents. The game flows with addictive simplicity, but almost immediately escalates into impressive levels of ruthlessness right out of the gate, and especially the closer you get to the end of your journey.
Tokaido can be played by 2-5 players, and carries a manufacturer's age recommendation of 8 and up.
You're out with your friends for a night on the town. It's late, you've all just sat down at your favorite revolving-conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, and everyone's craving delicious sashimi, maki, and dumplings. The trouble is, the kitchen's just given the closing call, and the restaurant has only a limited supply of sushi left. What to do?
Friendship's over: time to reach for your chopsticks and prepare for mortal sushi combat.
Sushi Go! is an exciting, fast-paced eat-'em-up that has you competing to snatch up the best sushi (card) combinations for your plate (hand). Each type of sushi scores points based on certain conditions: for instance, you just can't ever eat just one piece of delicious deep-fried tempura, so Tempura cards only score for each pair you have in your hand. Plump, savory Dumplings get a score multiplier the more of them you wolf down, so pile 'em up on your plate. And traditional nigiri sushi are so tasty on their own that they're worth a respectable number of points just as they are...but they're even better if you play them on top of a Wasabi card.
Can't seem to get a leg up on your competition? Try breaking out a fresh pair of Chopsticks to grab two sushi cards at a time, making sure you sneak that last Maki card out from under your hungry rivals' noses. And don't forget about dessert; players left without a single Pudding card on their plate at the end of the meal are sad, sorry sights indeed, and so lose points when it comes to scoring.
It's What's for Dinner
Each round is played with a small selection of cards from the deck; you never know what's going to be on the menu, so savvy diners must always be prepared to manage risks, shift strategies, cut losses, and pull out winning combinations at any time. Going all in on dumplings might seem like a good idea, but they're not going to be worth much if it turns out that only one or two dumplings come into play during the round.
And while it's tempting to get into a 'bidding war' on who collects the most Maki, it might lead you to easily overlook a more conservative diner who happens to be piling on the Nigiri and multiplier-triggering Wasabi cards.
I can't write enough good things about Sushi Go, from the adorable artwork (how could sushi look so cute and so delicious at the same time?!) to its lighthearted and addictive gameplay. It's one of my favorite tabletop games, bar none, and so easy to set up, explain, and play that it's my go-to game for travel or just hanging out, say, at your favorite sushi restaurant.
It even ships in a friggin' cute travel-sized tin container, perfect for packing around for quick 15 to 20-minute game sessions no matter where you are.
Sushi Go is playable by 2-5 players, ages 8 and up. Each game lasts a fun and fast-paced 15-20 minutes.
If you happen to be a highly specialized medical expert with a keen interest in traveling to disease-infested areas and working in an environment that houses some of the deadliest pathogens in the world, then a career at the CDC might be the right job for you!
For the rest of us, there's Pandemic, the game where you only have to pretend to be an agent of the CDC. I'm glad to see a cooperative game making this list; if you've never played a cooperative board game before, Pandemic is your trial by fire.
Cooperative board games encourage players to strategize and work together to beat the game. Meanwhile, the game board itself is trying to defeat you, usually in the form of soul-crushing game mechanics that take place every turn, or when something is triggered by a player's actions.
In Pandemic, your enemy is none other than several deadly diseases (represented by colored cubes) that have sprung up across the globe. Your goal is to research, treat, and ultimately stop these disease cubes from spreading, crossing continental borders, and merging with each other to trigger a devastating global - you guessed it - Pandemic.
Players win when all diseases have been eradicated, and lose when, well... everyone on the planet becomes infected with the Bird Flu or the Zombie Plague (there's always a Zombie Plague).
Ask your Doctor
To help combat the encroaching tide of death by runny noses and itchy, watery eyes, each player takes on the role of a specialist in the CDC's Infectious Diseases Response team, with each specialist having a unique ability.
The Dispatcher, for instance, can arrange for immediate air travel for himself and his teammates, ensuring that the right people get to the right places. The Medic can heal an entire city of all disease cubes no matter the severity, a boon for fighting back against unlucky outbreaks that could otherwise overwhelm the specialists during the tenuous early game. And the Scientist is able to quickly devise a cure for any given disease, requiring only three cards of the disease's color instead of four.
Also present are Special Event cards that allow for, say, the immediate construction of Research laboratories, or the removal of infection tokes, but these are few and far between.
Make no mistake about it, Pandemic is a game with only two difficulty settings: Nightmare, and with a few unlucky Epidemic draws, this difficulty can potentially be ratcheted up to Ultra-Nightmare.
So, don't be too discouraged if, despite your best efforts, that small outbreak of H1Nerd1 in Seattle winds up scouring all trace of human civilization from the planet. It's all in good fun! Just be sure to wash your hands afterward.
Pandemic is playable for 2-5 players, and is recommended for ages 10 and up. A typical game takes about 60 minutes to play.
Imagine Scrabble, but with colors and shapes. Then add in the addictive, je-ne-sais-quois charm of Bejeweled, stir in a lot of brainy goodness that's great for developing minds, and you've got Qwirkle.
Qwirkle is a game played with 108 wooden tiles, each of which is painted with six different shapes in six colors. To start, each player draws a 'hand' of six tiles; the player with the most tiles that share something in common, either color or shapes, gets to place their pieces on the game area.
Players score points by building horizontal, or vertical lines made up of tiles that share either the same shape or color. And, believe it or not, that's it!
Not surprisingly, the simplicity of Qwirkle makes it a great pick-up-and-play game. Its reliance on colors and shapes, coupled with its straightforward, easy-to-follow rules makes Qwirkle an easy choice to introduce board games to young kids. However, parents of particularly squirmy young 'ins might do well with halving the number of tiles they have to play with, thereby shortening the time it takes to finish a game and decide on a winner.
In spite of its simple design and gameplay concept, I was pleasantly surprised and astounded by the strategic depth experienced during the mid to late game, as with every piece you lay down, there's an opportunity you're setting up the board for your best-laid plans to be exploited by an opponent with a lucky shape or color.
For its kid-friendly qualities and fantastic replayability, Qwirkle has won the Parent's Choice Gold Award at the Mensa National Competition for educational board games.
Qwirkle is playable by 2 to 4 players, ages 6 and up, but because of the small size of its tiles, is not recommended for children under 3 years old. The game is also available in the iTunes Store for Apple devices, with the Android version to be released soon.
If you're just dipping your toes into the wonderful world of board gaming, a casual player looking for a quick and entertaining activity for family fun nights, or a seasoned veteran of the Catan circuit looking to get back in the game, now's a great time to check out your favorite online retailers for some great deals.
Good hunting, and game on!