Christmas is just around the corner, and for many of us that means long visits with friends and family. We all know the stress that can arise in today’s cultural climate. It would be nice if the conversation never had the opportunity to approach a discussion about how Uncle Fred voted. That is why, dear readers, board games were invented.
Not every board game makes sense for a family reunion. High-concept games like Black Angel won’t go very far while trying to explain what a worker placement game could mean for people. But nobody should be exposed to another round of Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit with so many amazing experiences for sale.
Here are six great options from the Polygon table library, all of which have been selected for easy rendering and availability. In fact, if your neck of the forest doesn’t have a friendly local game store, most of the titles listed below are for sale in places like Target and Walmart. So, even if you own one, just take another copy and leave it as a housewarming gift. Your in-laws will thank you.
Image: Czech Games Edition
Codenames is a game that doesn’t require much explanation. Just put it on the table – a five-by-five grid of benign words – and find three more people who want to get away. You can then start playing by saying a single word.
Codenames is a guessing game in which the players take on the role of secret agents. The cards are the code names of other secret agents in the field. It is up to the dealers who have a key that shows them where all the secret agents are on the table to guide their partner to the right contacts. The catch is that they can only offer clues that consist of a single word.
The secret agent could be code-named “banana”. A good clue would be to say “peel”, but not if there is an enemy agent named “Orange” somewhere on the grid. There are also countless variations of the game, including code names: Disney, code names: Marvel, and even a borderline version of Target called code names: Deep Undercover. For best results, I recommend combining normal code names with code names: pictures. A wooden insert from The Broken Token even makes it possible to transport both in the same box. – Charlie Hall
You can get code names here: Amazon | Target | Walmart
Get Code Names: Images Here: Amazon | Target | Walmart
Get The Broken Token’s code name organizer here: Amazon | The broken brand
Get code name: Duet here: Amazon | Target | Walmart
Get Code Name: Deep Undercover Here: Amazon | Target | Walmart
Get code name: Disney Family Edition here: Amazon | aim
Get code name: Marvel here: Amazon | Walmart
Get code names: Harry Potter here: Amazon | Walmart
Picture: Charlie Hall / Polygon
Sometimes the brilliance of a game is measured by its complexity. I described the Scythe strategy board game as a set of finely toothed gears that mesh to create something elegant at the table. However, sometimes the brilliance of a game is measured by its simplicity. I’m here to tell you that there is no game as simple or brilliant as Dude.
In the simple brown packaging there is a stack of colored playing cards on which someone has scribbled the word “dude” with a sharpie. The catch is that every time they wrote the word, they wrote it differently. It is very large on one card and very small on another. “Dewd” is written on one card and italics on another. The whole point of the game is to get someone at the table to guess which of the cards you are holding based on nothing other than how you say the word.
What ultimately happens is that you end up with a table full of people yelling at each other “guy” and laughing hysterically. It sounds crazy, but Dude has a magnetic quality like no other game I’ve ever played. Start a round with four people, and when it’s over, you’ve hired four more and you’re good to go. There is also an expansion pack called “More Dude”. – CH
Get Dude here: Amazon | aim
Get more dude here: Amazon North Star games
Board games are not always the best option. People have a healthy fear of staple foods like The Game of Life and Risk, and even modern classics like Cards Against Humanity can be unsuitable for groups with mixed ages or different political views. But everyone loves good music and Earworm is a game full of great songs.
The catch is that there is no real sound in this dainty yet elegant little box. The players draw a card and then have to hum a melody – or whistle in my case -. It is a game of musical charades with a fixed list that spans generations. Don’t worry about points, because in this case it’s all about performance.
For best results, split the deck in advance into multiple tracks that can be instantly recognized in certain age groups, and give the juiciest songs to the most reserved players. It’s like an evening in a good karaoke club, just without the weird stands, overpriced drinks or the waiter who always ruins the moment by opening the door at the wrong time. – CH
Purchase Earworm here: Backerkit (listed as a pre-order, but copies are in shipping)
We were all at parties with large groups of children. Parenting styles often come into conflict here. Becky’s children are clean and mostly silent and march to and from the dining table with a passive smile. Meanwhile, Tom’s “children” swing from the chandeliers. Fortunately, a game like Rhino Hero can easily tame the whole lot. You could even have fun playing as an adult.
Rhino Hero is a game of skill. Each player has a card hand and plays it one after the other to build a tower. It’s part of Uno and part of Jenga with adorable little animal meeples that were largely thrown in. The best thing is that it’s very portable and versions of the game easily fit in a coat pocket. – CH
Get Rhino Hero here: Amazon | HABA USA and local game shops Walmart
Get Rhino Hero Super Battle here: Amazon | HABA USA and local game shops Walmart
Picture: Hasbro via Amazon
Games in which players take turns judging contributions from the rest of the group are very popular, from family-friendly apples to apples to the decidedly NSFW cards against humanity. Generally, these games derive humor from the cards themselves, or at least from the comparison between the submissions and the prompt. It can get old, especially if you have played so often that you know exactly which cards are in the box and which are the most likely to make a particular family member laugh.
Snake Oil is similar to these games in a number of ways, but focuses on making players make their own jokes. The players take turns playing the role of a different customer in each round – it can be a cheerleader, a caveman or a burglar. Every other player has a card hand with a single noun, such as “snow”, “hairbrush” and “rope”. They accuse the customer of a product by combining two of these cards and then deciding which of these items they would most like to buy. The most convincing seller wins the round.
Snake oil is particularly good at getting family members out of their shells. It’s always funny when your shy aunt pulls out the most oily and manipulative selling point you’ve ever heard. I played with everyone from my in-laws to my college friends. The game works best when everyone comes on board with the premise and gathers around a certain place. At a post-Thanksgiving dinner game, my mother-in-law dropped the microphone so violently that everyone burst into tears. I don’t remember the specific product, but everyone decided that she was the clear winner. – Emily Heller
Get snake oil here: Amazon
Get Joke Juice Extension (kid-friendly) here: Amazon
Get crude oil expansion (NSFW) here: Amazon
Sometimes you sit in an empty family room with a dozen or more people. The game of football is getting more and more annoying and the goose is still hours away from being cooked. This is a great time to get telestrations out of the way.
In telestrations, each player draws a card with a harmless word or phrase. Then they draw a picture of this word and pass their drawing on to the left. The next person also paints a picture without looking at the word. All they have to do is the picture that the last person drew. If your drawing makes it all the way through the room and back to you, it will be fun. Each round ends with everyone communicating the development of their word and how different people in the chain totally screwed it up.
A box of telestrations contains a set of laminated folders, some dry erase markers and a pack of cards. Each set contains enough components for up to eight players. So with two copies you get everything you need for a group of 16 players. The more the better, because telestrations is the rare example of a game that the more people can gather around the table, the more fun it becomes. – CH
Get telestrations here: Amazon | Goal (6-player version) | Walmart (6 player version)
Get Telestrations: After Dark (NSFW) here: Amazon | Target | Walmart