Thanksgiving week is a time of eating food, shopping for crap, and then eating more of the same food all over again (this time as sandwiches). Of course, there’s a lot of downtime in there, too. Plenty of us will be heading home for the holidays, or spending time with friends—and to stave off the boredom, it’s always great to have a few board games on hand. But you don’t want to have to suffer through that 20-year-old copy of Taboo! or Stratego again, right?
To help out, I’ve compiled a handy list of cool games you can pull out whenever your aunt or cousin asks if everyone wants to join in on another game of Scrabble, Clue, or the like. Of course, to keep things interesting, I also included a few games that are more subversive than complimentary. Because it wouldn’t be family time without a bit of drama. Let the games begin.
If Your Family/Friends Like to Play...
Ah, the classic murder mystery game. There’s a reason escape rooms are so popular nowadays, and why there are even board game versions of them (I didn’t include any here, as they mostly amount to a series of jigsaw puzzles with a timer). People love a good mystery, and it’s an easy way to bring your family or friends together with a common goal.
I’ve already boasted the wonders of Mysterium before, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Suffice to say, this is the quintessential modern Clue game—especially for those looking for something cooperative. In Mysterium, players work together as a group of mediums trying to solve a murder. The twist is there’s one more player at the table, and they’re the murder victim. As a ghost, that player provides clues in the form of “psychic visions” to help the mediums figure out who did the crime, where it happened, and what weapon they used.
Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game
While Clue is more of a classic “whodunnit,” Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game is Law and Order: CSI on steroids. This game is great for those with family members who are obsessed with true crime shows or podcasts and have at least three hours to kill on Black Friday. Detective is a cooperative game where players work through a series of five interconnected cases, gathering clues, following leads, and questioning suspects. It’s not easy, as the team’s success depends on how many clues are gathered and deduced. It’s also a multimedia game, meaning it includes a database website that players may have to turn to for more information. In other words, Grandma may not be on board.
Card games are a quick and easy way to get people to the table for a bit of easy, competitive fun. And while I’m a fan of the classics—Hearts remains one of my favorite card games—there are plenty of new games that are just as challenging, with a bit of added hilarity.
Unstable Unicorns remains one of the most popular Kickstarter campaigns of all time, and for good reason. It’s a delightful and adorable, but remarkably tough, strategy game where players work to build their own unicorn armies. It’s all about timing and patience, as other players can slow your progress if they think you’re building your forces too fast.
If you want something that’s just as loud as Uno but more cooperative, Spaceteam is a solid choice. Players work together to repair a malfunctioning spaceship, coordinating to get the right cards lined up before the ship flies into a black hole. This means it usually ends up with everyone yelling hilarious commands at each other, like “I need that weird spindly corkscrew thing, you know what I’m talking about, right?”
This is a tough one, as having a family that’s into Risk can mean one of two things. Either they’re into conquest games, in which case I’ve got an excellent candidate, or someone at the table is way into war campaigning and political history in a way that can get real awkward real fast. That’s not to say you should avoid political discussions with your family, but you probably don’t want a bunch of game pieces scattered on the floor as a result. Your uncle’s certainly not going to pick them up.
Scythe is perfect for those wanting to play a campaign board game similar to Risk, but without the awkwardness of acting as an invading army of actual foreign nations. The engine-building game takes place in an alt-history 1920s Eastern Europe, where a great war has left civilizations devastated and giant armored mechs roaming the land. Each player is tasked with restoring their people’s honor and leading their faction to power through gathering resources, conquering territory, constructing settlements, and activating mechs. Gameplay is quick and streamlined, and players cannot be killed off.
If you’re looking for a defensive strategy game that will subtly send a message to that one person at the table (you know who I’m talking about), Spirit Island is a good way to get a point across. Unlike Risk, where total world domination is the end game, Spirit Island is about fighting colonialism. Players take on the role of island spirits who have banded together to save their home and its people from invading foreigners. And before you think it could turn into a “Build The Wall” situation, the invading countries are clearly white colonists—from England, Brandenburg-Prussia, or Sweden. It’s a game that has a similar tone to Risk, but an entirely different message.
This is the game of choice for my side of the family (my husband’s family does not care for it). There’s something exciting about flexing your mind muscles with a game of both skill and chance, solving a puzzle of words that require you to know a) what words are; and b) how to spell them correctly. Trust me, my family gets super into it...and I usually end up losing. That’s why I came up with some alternatives!
One of the things that makes Scrabble so interesting is that it’s both competitive and cooperative. You often depend on the other person to help get you spots to play your best words. In The Mind, that mind-melding cooperation is taken to the extreme. Players take turns laying down hidden numbered cards in sequential order, from lowest to highest. But here’s the thing: It’s entirely silent. Players cannot speak to each other about their cards, or hint at what they’re going to play next. It’s all about trusting in each other to ensure the group’s success.
Pantone: The Game
While Scrabble is about putting random letters together to make words, Pantone creates art with swatches. This card game has players designing different pop culture characters through a series of color swatches, trying to get others to guess who they’re referencing based on nothing but color (and a few hints as needed). It’s a challenging puzzle that feels similar to Scrabble, but is also the polar opposite. Of course this one isn’t appropriate for families or friends where one or more members have color blindness.
...Settlers of Catan
Congratulations, your family likes working together in a calm and peaceful setting! Actually, I take that back, Settlers of Catan can get competitive as hell. But at least it’s pastoral and looks really pretty. Here are some similar experiences for people looking for a beautiful game with a bit of an edge.
This is basically Settlers of Catan in space. In Terraforming Mars, players take on the role of corporations trying to terraform the planet, doing things like raising the temperature, creating oxygen, and establishing life and society on the planet. Given how screwed up our planet seems to be nowadays, thanks to climate change, the idea of terraforming a new one sounds pretty nice.
I’m a big fan of the Forbidden series, and Sky is the latest and perhaps coolest additions to the franchise. It’s a cooperative game where players are on a “mysterious platform” floating in the sky, as a dangerous lightning storm approaches. Players need to construct a rocket so they can escape while learning more about the strange place they’ve found themselves. This game doesn’t require you to have played any of the others in the Forbidden series, but it does make learning this one a lot easier.
...Apples to Apples
This is the classic party game for people who’ve realized that Cards Against Humanity is a toxic pile of poop. Of course, there are plenty of alternate versions that don’t involve hating yourself for saying “that thing.”
Bards Dispense Profanity
Save this one for after the kids go to bed. Bards Dispense Profanity is a copycat version of Cards Against Humanity, with one notable difference: All of the answers are real quotes from William’s Shakespeare works. That might make it sound totally dated, but trust me—they get really raunchy, really fast. It’s a fun way to channel some adults-only humor without the awkwardness of CAH’s casual bigotry. Instead, it’s old-fashioned bigotry, with a history lesson.
Ever wanted to introduce your parents to shipping? Slash is a hilarious card game where players create their ideal fan relationships out of beloved fictional characters and historical figures. It’s fun because not only is it an interesting social experiment in seeing how different characters would get along, but the game also encourages players to create their own fan fiction in order to defend their choices. It’s a silly game that will also get your family members wondering whether Darth Maul really could build a lifelong companionship with Goofy. For the record, they totally could.
...The Game of LIFE
This is another tough one. The Game of LIFE is a suburban capitalism dream, where players follow the literal road of life to financial success, a nuclear family, and a cushy retirement. Sadly, that game doesn’t reflect where we are now, and can end up feeling really depressing. Instead, I chose realistic games that better reflect our own desires, troubles, and conflicts. Keep in mind: These games are more emotionally challenging than others on this list, and care should be taken in regards to who you play them with, and how.
Discover: Lands Unknown
The Game of LIFE is about where it’s easy to thrive, but Discover: Lands Unknown is all about survival. Players wake up in a strange location and have to figure out how to survive and escape, and the location style can change with every game. For example, one day you might be in the chilly mountains needing to build a fire, while another is in a forest haunted by mysterious creatures. What’s interesting about this game is that each copy is unique, with a different combination of player and location cards inside each box. That means no two households will play exactly the same.
Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr
Board games are not often considered art, at least not by casual players, but games like Holding On are sure to change their minds. In this cooperative game, players become a medical staff dedicated to the needs of a dying man named Billy Kerr. He has regrets he needs to get off his chest, and players are tasked with keeping him alive and comfortable long enough so he can tell his story and die in peace. I don’t say this lightly...this game is intense. An emotional rollercoaster that challenges players in ways we don’t often see in board games. Plus, it tackles something we all face: confronting the mistakes of our past. It won’t be for every family—but if yours is the right one, it can be a beautiful bonding experience.
Why yes, I too like to live dangerously. As much as we all like to pretend board games are simply a fun way to spend time together, there are some families and friend groups that get joy out of being truly evil to each other. They lie, they cheat, they steal money out of the bank when no one is looking.
No better way to be a villain than to play as an actual villain. This latest Disney board game, Villainous, has players take on the role of iconic Disney villains like Captain Hook, Ursula, and Maleficent. Each player has a different goal they’re trying to achieve while working to undermine everybody else. I personally loved playing as the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. While every other villain is like “take all the gold” or “destroy the world,” the Queen of Hearts just wants to play a good game of croquet. I mean, who can fault her for that?
After all that negativity, y’all need to chill out. Go plant some trees.