The Space-Biff! Holiday Survival Guide
It’s that time of year again! The weather is getting nippy, radio stations are playing jollier music, and you’re honor-bound to spend multiple evenings with people you don’t necessarily know very well but who hold some sort of genetic or matrimonial connection to you. Sure, Uncle Deever is sort of a racist and your mother-in-law asks a lot of questions that feel like indictments of how badly you’re caring for her precious baby, but it could be worse. You might, for example, have nobody around who loves you.
But for those of us who do, what follows is an incredibly subjective and probably wrong-headed list of the ten games I’ll be hauling around in a big yellow duffel bag this holiday season.
(3-6 players, review)
One of the first requirements for the games on this list is that they must be playable by people who aren’t particularly into board games. Nevermore is the slight exception to this rule, unfolding over a few different steps and potentially pulling the rug out from under you when your character dies and you’re transformed into a vengeful raven (“Like the Japanese!” Uncle Deever says, slapping the table triumphantly), but the final result flows quickly and, better yet, is surprisingly nasty. Which is a good thing, I think. I hope.
At its core, everyone is either trying to murder everyone else or gather six points. This might sound easy, especially for those of my readers who are serial murderers, but the road to victory can be surprisingly bendy. For one thing, you’ll first have to assemble a hand of the right cards, gathering swords to attack, hearts to heal, swirly-blues to pick up magical powers, and chalices to gain points. For another, you’ll also be “hate-drafting” disruptive ravens into other players’ hands, though give too many to one person and they’ll become the most powerful player at the table for a round. Then again, the moment somebody grows too powerful is the instant they’re dragged back down by everyone else. Unsurprisingly, this one has a tendency to run a little long.
Verdict: For families who have played classic card games like Hearts and who don’t mind getting murdered and having all the rules change halfway through.
#9. Deep Sea Adventure
(3-6 players, review)
Here’s one for the kids that won’t cause their adult overseer to imbibe a few too many desperate glasses of wine. Everyone takes on the role of a deep-sea explorer, there’s treasure to be found, and in spite of the friendly competition between players, you’ve still arrived in a submarine with a single tank of air. It also teaches some minor life lessons along the way. You roll to move (addition!), choose when to pick up treasure or return to the sub (risk management!), and when the air begins to run out you might have to ditch some of your treasure to make it back in time (basic scuba skills!).
Verdict: A great game for when the younger people stop being entertained by throwing giblets at each other.
#8. The Duke
(2 players, review)
When it comes to chess, grandpa’s got your number? It’s the one time he transforms into a vindictive old coot? You’d love to wipe that dentured grin off his face?
The Duke is your best bet.
For one thing, it feels like chess, and that makes it familiar enough to persuade almost anyone into a match. You’ve got pieces that slide, pieces that step, and pieces that hop. And as a preemptive measure for when grandpa says he can’t learn new tricks because he doesn’t know the difference between pieces, the moves are printed right on their face. Easy peasy.
At least until a couple wrinkles are introduced. First of all, every time a piece moves, it flips over, revealing an entirely different move on the other side. Controlling the board isn’t just about moving what you can see, it’s about setting up your future moves, managing the hidden. Secondly, new pieces appear periodically, drawn from a bag and placed next to your leader. The result is a dynamic field of interlocking traps, danger zones, and barriers. It’s clever stuff. Grandpa will still probably beat you.
Verdict: As I said: like chess. But better, because it isn’t fifteen hundred years old.
There are a few different versions of this one, but all of them have one thing in common: they’re fantastic for those families who are willing to lie to one another — which is going to become a running theme here, so if your family feels strongly that all speech ought to be true speech, this entire list is about to collapse into a deceitful heap of unhelpful blather.
But if your loved ones can hack it, they’re in for a treat. See, Coup revolves around the idea that there are five different roles, each corresponding with a different action. One might attack another player, or gather money, or let you swap cards. Something to that effect. But — Shyamalan twist! — you’re only given two cards. This means you’re only “allowed” to take those actions; but when I say “allowed,” I mean you can take any dang action you can get away with. Though if someone calls you out, you’d better have been telling the truth that time.
Verdict: The family that deceives together, stays together.
(3-8 players, review)
Here’s one that will make your timid house-aunt very nervous at regular intervals. Whether that’s good or bad really comes down to how well you like her.
In Spyfall, everyone is given a card that shows a location. The same location, in fact. So you’ll be looking at a pleasant picture of a theater, and so will everyone else. Theaters all around, all the same, and still you aren’t allowed to show your card. It’s a secret. Why? Well, because everyone is looking at the same card… except for one person. And the laws of luck give a hundred-percent guarantee that the highest-strung person in your group will have the honor of being this exception.
This person is the spy, and it’s their job to figure out where they are. Everyone else already knows, so it’s their job to figure out who the spy is. Cue a barrage of vague-but-pointed questions, such as “What do you smell here, Uncle Deever?” followed by a triumphant, “Kimchi!” even though Uncle Deever knows for a fact that there is no chance of anyone consuming kimchi at the theater. You might suspect him as the spy, but that’s the answer he’s given to the last seven questions. He’s either a genius or a racist.
Verdict: Good for lying families. Again.
#5. A Fake Artist Goes to New York
(5-10 players, review)
This one might sound similar to Spyfall at first — everyone is a real artist in New York (ha!) trying to deceive the faker (just one?) while still letting the other real artists know that they’re on the same team (conformists!). This is where the similarities end, because rather than relying on quick wits and a straight face, A Fake Artist Goes to New York is about artistic ability. Or, put into more relatable terms, about having absolutely none whatsoever.
Instead of spinning questions, players are given a single canvas and tasked with drawing a picture one brushstroke at a time, working from a shared topic. The counterfeiter, whoever that may be, is forced to play along, adding her own stroke and hoping that her compatriots are more inept than she is clueless. It’s bluffing as art, and the end of each round — when the intended subject matter is finally unveiled — is sure to prompt some hearty laughter.
Verdict: Good for families who like lying to each other, though in this case the lying is somewhat adorable.
(3-6 players, review)
Set during the sepia-toned era of Prohibition (“My kind of time!” Uncle Deever says, a triumphant note in his voice for some reason), Prohis is all about smuggling as much liquor as possible. Also about intercepting liquor with your anti-alcohol agents, though not for confiscation purposes, at least not unless the police evidence room happens to be a warehouse with an Italian import company’s name over the door. Which is to say, everyone plays both smuggler and gatekeeper at once, though checking shipments runs the risk of having your crooked cops stolen away to another gang.
Ultimately, Prohis may be a pared-down version of Sheriff of Nottingham, but that was never a bad thing.
Verdict: Lying families again. Are there families out there who don’t enjoy lying to each other?
#3. Mafia de Cuba
(6-12 players, review)
While we’re on the topic of the mob, we might as well introduce another excellent bluffing game. In Mafia de Cuba, one person gets to be the Godfather. Everyone else gets to be — well, that’s up to them. See, the Godfather passes his cigar box around the table, and everyone gets a chance to steal something from it. Not only does it feel genuinely transgressive slipping something into your pocket without letting anybody see what it was, but you’re also choosing your role in the game that follows. Will you pocket some of the Godfather’s diamonds and hope to get away with it? Or will you be a loyal henchman and help the Godfather figure out who the thieves are? Or perhaps you’d rather be a dirty fed and try to be picked, acting all suspicious without overselling it.
No matter which you pick, Mafia de Cuba is a great quick game that works with large groups stuffed with turkey and ham, unable to move their bloated frames from their seats around the table.
Verdict: I mean, I wouldn’t even know what that would look like. Not lying? Lying is the bread-and-butter of family life. I think Proust wrote that.
(2-7 players, review)
Okay, so maybe your family wants a break from lying to each other all the time. Sure, fine. Fine. Here’s a cooperative game instead.
Without going into too much detail — because I write a whole lot of words about this one — Mysterium is one of the best light family games out there. One person plays as a ghost trying to communicate the details of their murder so that he can rest in peace. Everyone else is a medium, receiving the ghost’s messages. Unfortunately, the ghost can only speak through fuzzy dreams, leaving the mediums to wheedle over which vision corresponds with the who, what, and where of the murder suspects.
Verdict: Clever, pleasant, and rewarding; great for families who can’t tell even one more lie or everything will come apart.
(2-8 players, review)
A whole lot of people are yammering about Codenames, and there’s good reason for it. After breaking into two teams and assigning one person the nerve-wracking job of team leader, the goal is to find all the words of your color. The problem? The leader is the only one who can see which words belong to their team, but can only give clues that consist of one word and one number. For example, if I needed to have you guess Slug, Mole, and Conductor, I might say something like, “Digger three.” Because a train conductor digs somehow, I guess? Look, I didn’t say I gave good clues, just that they were clues.
“Conductor!” Uncle Deever shouts, pointing a triumphant finger at the table. Aw hell.
Codenames just works. It’s simple. Fun. Gives everyone a chance to leap to brilliant conclusions. It’s sort of like doing a crossword puzzle that isn’t mind-numbingly boring.
Verdict: Seriously excellent stuff.
Anyway, that’s my personal holiday survival kit. What, dearest of all readers, is yours?