Board game Top 10: Christmas card games

Every couple of years I like to do a Christmas list of some sort. This time it’s my Top 10 Christmas card games. They’re all small box, so perfect for stocking fillers or secret santa gifts.

All 10 games have had editions released over the last five years, so shouldn’t be hard to find. And these little card games should all cost less than £20. If they say ‘+’ after the minutes, it means you can keep playing indefinitely. Many modern games have an optional campaign mode, so you can start next time where you left off last.

My last few Christmas lists are still relevant too. If you need further gift inspiration, check out my Top 10 stocking fillers. While there’s also my Top 10 family games you can teach anyone at Christmas. It’s going to be a weird year for everyone, so there’s never been a better year to bring some fresh games to the table. They’re not in any particular order, but hopefully there’s something here to suit any play style.

I’ll also give an unsolicited Christmas shopping shout-out to the Board Game Prices website. It’s unusual for a hobby this size to get a price comparison site this good. And if it keeps some of you on indie websites rather than the big boys, then more’s the better. Let’s show those independent retailers some love.

Top 10: Christmas card games

The Crew
(2-5 players, 20+ mins, ages 10+)
Rather than fighting this Christmas, why not work together on a card-driven space adventure? It’s wholly abstract, but this award-winning trick-taker sees you co-operating to make sure the right players win the right tricks. Unique, simple rules and very well executed.

Point Salad
(2-6 players, 15-30 mins, ages 8+)
This is a simple set collection game with a clever twist. Each card has a veggie on one side and a way to score on the other. Choose wisely which way up to keep each card, to maximise your points. And be careful, as some cards score negatives for certain types.

Fabled Fruit
(2-5 players, 20+ mins, ages 8+)
This clever little set collection card game slowly introduces new cards with different powers each time you play. So while the rules are always simple, these added little twists keep the game fresh long after a game this simple’s sell-by date.

(2-5 players, 30 mins, ages 8+)
In this pattern matching game, each card is split into six sections. These represent towns, woods, lakes etc. But they’re also numbered, so you play tricks to claim them. Land types score differently, so you try to make the best personal map by overlaying the cards.

(3-5 players, 30 mins, ages 10+)
This is at the opposite end of the scale from The Crew. Oriflamme sees you betting and bluffing your way to victory at the expense of your opponents. Character cards are played to a central row and affect each other in a variety of devious ways.

(3-5 players, 15 mins, ages 10+)
This is a clever co-operative puzzler. One set of cards has numbers, another rules showing how a card can be swapped. One of each type is put into a card sleeve. But only the holder of each card knows its rules. Swap cards until they’re all in order. So simple – but so tricky!

Fox in the Forest
(2, 30 mins, ages 10+)
The only game on the list I haven’t played. It’s here because it’s in the BGG Top 500/family games Top 100. And because friends whose opinions I respect enjoy the hell out of it. All I can say is, it’s a trick-taking game designed specifically for two players.

Games I’ve previously reviewed

Short notes here, but click through for full reviews. These are all games I’ve given massively favourable reviews in the past few years.

X Nimmt
(2-4 players, 30 mins, 8+)
Play cards in sequence to rows – but don’t play the sixth card in a row, as you’ll have to pick them all up. A clever version of 6 Nimmt allowing lower player counts than the original.

(3-5 players, 30 mins, 10+)
The recent reprint of clever trick-taker Eternity. As well as evolving trump suits, you can discard rather than following tricks. Discarding as many as you win tricks to score bonuses.

5 Colors
(2-5 players, 30 mins, 8+)
Re-released more recently under the much worse title 5211 – but with much prettier cards. Players slowly reveal cards, with colour majorities scoring (or not) if they bust or tie.

Anansi card game: A four-sided review

Anansi is a trick-taking card game for three to five players (for solo and two-player variants, see below). The colourful artwork comes from Nigeria (Dayo Baiyegunhi) and South Africa (Emmanuel Mdlalose) and has enough originality to stand out from the crowd.

The box lists the game as being suitable for ages 10+ and as lasting around 30 minutes. The time is pretty accurate, (20-40 depending on player count). And the age is about right. As while it’s light on rules the subtlety in scoring could be lost on younger players.

The game is a reprint of 2016 release Eternity. For a simple comparison between the two, scroll down to the relevant section below. This twin-pack sized card box contains 96 cards and should set you back a little over £10. This is about standard for a game of this size. And the card stock is of good quality, so I’d say OK in terms of value.

Teaching the Anansi card game

As with all the best trick-takers, Anansi takes the basic concept and makes a couple of subtle twists. The key to success here is to ‘inspire’ your followers. This means matching the number of tricks you win with the amount of followers you collect each round. Followers (0-2) are printed on the cards, with higher value cards having more followers.

A game last three rounds. In each you’ll be dealt 8 or 10 cards (depending on player count) and play that many tricks. The 42 game cards are numbered 1-14 in three suits. After dealing there will be two left over. These indicate the starting trump suit – which is where things get interesting. Before play the three separate cards (each showing a suit) are placed in a row, randomly. From left (strongest) to right, this indicates the trump strength of each suit. The two spare cards are placed in this area. If they’re the same colour, that suit is trump (as it has two cards). If different, the stronger suit becomes trump (as they have one card each). The value printed on the card is ignored, as only the suit is important.

The clever bit

The start player in a trick must lay a card, but the next player has a choice: lay to the trick, or gain followers (see below). Laying a card follows typical trick-taking rules: follow suit if you can, or trump/ditch a card of another suit. Best card wins the trick. To gain followers, put the card to one side until the end of the trick. Then look at the number of followers on the discarded card (either 0, 1 or 2). Take that many follower cards. Then add the card to the trumps area, potentially changing the trump suit for the next trick.

Once all tricks in a round are completed, players score. It’s vital not to have more followers than tricks won, as that scores 0 for the round. Otherwise, score one point per follower/trick-won pair. Plus, if you have exactly the same number of followers and tricks, you get bonus points. The bonus increases each round, giving those falling behind ample chance to fight back. After three rounds, the player with the most points wins.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: It’s hard to make trick-taking games stand out in a crowded market, but Anansi’s art does the job well. And once you start playing, the subtle twists draw you in. Its clever that the high numbered cards (likely to win tricks) are the ones you need to get the most followers. Simply counting your high numbers doesn’t equate to roughly how many tricks you’re likely to win. Because you’ll equally want to discard some for their followers.
  • The thinker: Many trick-taking games have you predicting how many tricks you think you’ll win. But here it’s often a moving target – an interesting strategic and tactical conundrum. The way trumps work really mixes things up. Some rounds it won’t change at all, where in others it’s in almost constant flux. Better still for the strategic thinker, all cards are in play at all times. Even in a three-player game, where some are left out, the unused cards are on display. A very interesting and fun game.
  • The trasher: I like the constantly shifting goalposts in Anansi. They keep everyone on their toes throughout each round. The first few games are tricky as you get your head around the subtleties. But once you start thinking about everyone’s hands, rather than just your own, things really get interesting. Having just three suits gives less opportunities to ditch cards rather than follow suit. Which means on unlucky rounds things can be a little on rails. But for the interesting elements it adds to deciding trumps I think it’s worth it.
  • The dabbler: While the game is pretty, and clever, you need a group of trick-taking fans to make it sing. There’s not much here to hold the interest of those who don’t dig traditional card games. It can also become frustrating if you don’t get the hang of it quickly. And it can be quite a heads-down affair, as there’s loads to think about to manage to get the all-important balance. That said, I really liked it! You just need to pick the right crowd.

Key observations

Not everyone is going to like the changing trump mechanism. If you like the Wizard-style planning, this may not be for you. This is very much a game with a changing landscape hand to hand – as tactical as it is strategic. If you don’t want a bit of chaos in your trick-taking, the Anansi card game probably isn’t for you.

Only having three suits can create some bum hands. It’s more likely you’ll be able to follow suit, so sometimes you’re lefty unable to affect proceedings much. Which can be frustrating. Also ,the way the scoring ramps up works in terms of keeping players in the game. But it’s also frustrating if you do well in round one but less well later. Why are you getting less points, just because you got your good hands early? I can see this being house-ruled out of the game by more serious players.

Anansi is a trick-taker with a few clever bells and whistles. But it is very much just that. So if you don’t like trick-taking games, this is unlikely to convert you. However, it could certainly turn the heads of ‘traditional’ card game players. But the balancing of tricks to followers will also put some off. As while I find it a fascinating puzzle, others may see it as a chore getting in the way of ‘proper’ trick-taking play.

Comparisons to Eternity & the two-player/solo rules

I preferred the presentation of Eternity. The whole package, from the tree tokens to the scorepad and pencil, oozed class. But I applaud HeidelBAR’s use of African folk lore and artists. They’ve created a unique looking product celebrating a culture under-represented in the industry. Fitting at this time, when the Black Lives Matter movement is rightly on our minds.

The two-player rules have been directly ported from the original game. Players play two cards each per hand, while a dummy hand slowly reveals the cards not in-game each turn, keeping a bit of extra tension going in terms of learning which cards are in play. It’s fast and quick, but works very well.

They’ve also added both a solo version and an extended variant for the 3-5 player game. As all these rules take up just a single sheet, I can’t fathom why they didn’t just include them in the box. But in these days of almost constant connectivity, I guess it isn’t really a problem. The extended version seems a bit pointless to me – why not just play again? But it’s always nice to have more options available, so why not? I’m sure some people will like it.

The solo rules are a riff on the two-player version. It’s incredibly simple. Your imaginary opponent has a face-down deck of cards. Each round they play (randomly) first and last, starting and finishing each hand with you playing two cards in the middle. It works fine, but is hardly inspiring. It will pass time in a push. But trick-taking games are surely about reading your opponents? I guess nowadays everyone feels as if their game ‘needs’ rules for as many different player counts as possible.

Conclusion: The Anansi card game

I love a good trick-taking game – and Anansi is one of the better ones I’ve played. While simple to teach, it has that extra level of complexity to stand above some of its competitors. But it doesn’t overdo it in terms of extra rules, meaning you’ve got a better chance of selling it to new and traditional card players. Plus the artwork is bright and colourful. A bit gaudy and shiny for my tastes, but I doubt it will put anyone off playing. It’s just great to see a fantastic game back in print.

For me Anansi is more enjoyable and original than popular trick-takers Diamonds or Skull King. I’d list it as a must-have for genre fans and a should-try for anyone who is a vague fan of trick-taking games. It will be staying in my collection. But if you already have Eternity, there’s no need to pick this up unless you love the artwork. You can simply download the solo/long game rules sheet (linked above) if you want to try those variants.

Board game Top 10: 1980s games that stand the test of time

Welcome to my board game Top 10 1980s games: the decade that saw me struggle through high school, enjoy college, then get my first proper job.

I played some card games, plus some Scrabble and Chess, with my mum. Then some D&D and Games Workshop stuff at high school. And then moved on. But unbeknownst to me there were actually some pretty good board games out there.

So while ‘the cult of the new’ gets all the headlines, I thought it time to give some love to some in-print gems that deserve a place on your shelves. Many of these gems have been borrowed from repeatedly since. And I’d argue some are yet to be bettered in their genre: with many holding strong in the BGG Top 1000. So as these games reach middle age, maybe skip that overblown Kickstarter you’ve been eyeing and give a classic a chance.

I used a BGG search to get the list, so some may have slipped through the cracks. And deliberately left out war games, Games Workshop and Steve Jackson Games as they have very specific audiences. I also left out both Merchant of Venus and HeroQuest for similar reasons. While I left out the original Arkham Horror because it was unrecognisable from recent versions. The games on this list are varied, but have a good chance of appealing to various types of modern gamer.

Board game Top 10: 1980s games

10. Werewolf
(1986, 3+ players, 60 mins)

More an activity than a game? Well, I’m including it here. I’m not a fan, but it is very clever. This is a group participation game, involving outing players as potential werewolves (via often heated group discussion) and killing them off. There’s acting, lying, and manipulation. Great for parties in the right groups. And now in about a thousand flavours to suit all tastes.

9. Wizard
(1984, 3-6 players, 45 mins)

I’ve never quite understood the point of Wizard – but I love it. For me, this is contract whist with a very small twist on the rules. And the versions I’ve seen don’t have particularly nice cards (one has some of the worst fantasy art you’ll see). I’d rather just play contract whist with a normal deck of cards. But if this will draw players in, go for it! A great game.

8. 1830: Railways & Robber Barons
(1986, 2-7 players, 3-6 hours)

The popularity of the Ticket to Ride series has ensured train games are a key part of the board game landscape. And the 18xx series has done the same thing for more serious gamers. With 1830 the highest rated on BGG. It’s a deep, long route building and economic game devoid of luck. Build your network, invest in shares and make the most profit.

7. Die Macher
(1986, 3-5 players, 4+ hours)

If you’d told Die Macher’s designers their four-hour German election sim would become a 30+ year sleeper hit, I doubt they’d have believed you. But it is an utterly compelling political game. The hours fly by as alliances rise and fall, and you can see far enough forward to plan for game-changing policy and media changes. It really is quite special.

6. Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective
(1982, 1-4 players, 1-3 hours)

This is a co-operative narrative game, where together you attempt to solve a mystery. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure game on steroids, with a large mapping showing numbered locations. Piece together the clues, leading to new locations, and solve the crime. Early versions were a little wonky, but it is still being supported with new scenarios today.

The Top 5: Eighties games for all the family

5. Scotland Yard
(1983, 2-6 players, 45 mins)

Once again you’re trying to catch a murderer on the streets of London. But this time, one of you is the villain. One player moves secretly (writing down their moves) around the map, while the rest work together to corner and capture them. It’s a common find in UK charity shops and well worth a look – especially if it includes the ‘Mr X’ baseball cap!

4. Labyrinth
(1986, 2-4 players, 30 mins)

This is another mass market release with solid gamer credentials. Yes, it’s a family game and there’s a fairly large luck element involved. But planning your routes around the ever-changing maze in this spatial puzzle can be genuinely tricky. Don’t let the cartoony visuals fool you – this can be a thinky and frustrating experience for even hardened gamers.

3. Survive: Escape from Atlantis
(1982, 2-4 players, 60 mins)

Another with strong charity shop potential, Survive was a Parker/Waddingtons staple for years. It has enjoyed a recent reprint, but I don’t think the game has ever been perfected. Despite that, it is fun enough to carry it off. Desperately try to get your Atlanteans to the edge of the board. Before your opponents feed them to sharks. Wholesome family fun…

2. Take it Easy
(1983, 1-8 players, 30 mins)

This clever little abstract game sees players trying to connect pipelines to score points. The trick is that all players are using exactly the same pieces, in the same order – but arranging them how they like. Players pretty much immediately diverge and it ends up as a fascinating puzzle of a game.

1. Can’t Stop
(1980, 2-4 players, 30 mins)

This is one of my few all-time Top 20 regulars. Mechanically, it is an incredibly simple abstract dice game. But in practice it is a brilliant filler game and great for all ages – it’s even educational. Can’t Stop is all about probabilities. How long will you keep pushing your luck, while risking losing all your progress? It simply creates a great atmosphere.

I’ll come back with a 1990s list, where the competition for places will be a lot stronger! But with the exception of Werewolf (not my kind of game), there’s nothing on this list I wouldn’t happily sit down and play today.

* Like this board game Top 10 1980s list? Check out all my other Board Game Top 10s.

Under Falling Skies board game: A solo review

The Under Falling Skies board game is a dice placement action selection game, with clear nods to the likes of Independence Day and X-COM. It is definitely just a solo game and has a short play time of around 30 minutes. It is listed as 12+, but I’m sure gamer kids a bit younger than that would soon get to grips with it.

While this is a small box game with a small footprint, it manages to pack quite the thematic punch and has loads of replayability. Impressive for what is basically quite a mechanical dice puzzle. The base game is complimented by a story-driven mission campaign which is both multi-directional and fully replayable.

In the box you’ll find about 10 plastic pieces, seven dice, a wooden vehicle piece and whole bunch of cardboard mini boards. At less than £25, you won’t have to worry about getting your money’s worth. The game is beautifully produced, the iconography simple and clear, and the comic book-style artwork nicely compliments the overall experience.

Playing the Under Falling Skies board game

The multi-section game board is long, thin and split into five columns. The alien invaders start at the top in their mothership, with our hero (that’s you, gawd help us) at the bottom in (of course) Roswell. The enemy starts with five ships, one in each column. 17 spaces below is your base, and below ground are six more rows making up your base. Just five dice rest between you and the end of the world. No pressure.

You first roll and assign one dice to each column within your base. There’s no dice mitigation as such. Instead, when you place a white dice in a column (you have three grey and two white) you must reroll all remaining dice. This works well, letting you (hopefully) get out of a bind – or in the opposite case, place four dice immediately if they’re in a good combo. Higher numbers tend to give better powers. But once placed, you have to move any ships in that column an equal number of spaces towards the base…

To win you need to complete research. Green spaces in your base let you do this, but cost energy. Red base spaces also need energy, but let you attack the alien ships. (Some sky spaces have a number on them, allowing you to shoot down ships on those spaces if your attack value is high enough). You get energy from yellow spaces in your base. Elsewhere, the top row of your base is a bit of a dumping ground. Dice placed here have the simple/weak ability to decrease the die number placed by one. But even this can be handy to get a ship onto a kill space, or at worst slow it down.

‘Welcome to Earth’

Your base also has a seven-space damage track. Each time an alien ship gets to the bottom of its column, it deals one damage and heads back to the mother ship to go again. So managing those ships is crucial. But even if you shoot ships down, they come again – so time is of the essence. After each round the mothership drops down a row, and if it manages to drop 12 rows it’s all over. And, of course, each time the mother ship drops a space it means the smaller ships are starting one row closer to your base…

And the mothership dropping can hurt you in other ways; adding extra attack ships, negating some of your research or slowing down your excavator. Your what? Well, you also have a little wooden piece in your base that can burrow down to lower levels, opening up extra (always better) rooms lower below ground. Awesome, sure – but it wastes a dice each time you do it. Speculate to accumulate and all that. It can definitely be worth it – and is sometimes unavoidable, as those lower rooms open abilities you may need to win.

So that’s the basics: slow/shoot down the enemy enough to get your research done before your base is annihilated or the mothership arrives. After your first play you’ll add robots (extra dice which can do automated actions for you each turn), as well as all sorts of other exciting things I’m not allowed to talk about. You simply don’t have clearance…

The four criteria

In a change to my normal reviews, I’m instead looking at areas in which solo board games tend to be judged – either favourably or not, depending on your tastes.

  • Elegance: I didn’t find playing the Under Falling Skies board game an elegant experience at first. And was a little worried after one play. But once you become familiar with the timings, and the nuances of how certain aspects gel together, it soon becomes a smooth experience. The rules are spread over eight A5 pages, including plenty of pictures/examples. And most of the actions, while hardly oozing theme, make thematic sense. After two plays, I felt 100% confident in what I was doing and didn’t find myself returning to the rulebook.
  • Meaningful decisions: It’s here the game shines surprisingly well. You have just five dice and one only one way to mitigate them – but that one way is where the game really stands out. Knowing you’ll have to reroll all remaining dice when you lay a white one keeps you almost permanently on edge. Do you take the average-ish grey dice you rolled now, or risk rolling disastrous ones by placing a white dice now? Elsewhere, you can shift focus on a dime. You may think OK, this turn I need to put a load of effort into research. But then the dice fall in a way that could see you take out several ships – potentially prolonging the game, giving you an extra turn or two to get that research.
  • Replayability: Publisher CGE has specifically asked reviewers not to talk about the content of the included campaign. Personally, I think this is a mistake on their part. All I’ll do here is repeat what I said earlier. Included in the box is a story-driven mission campaign which is both multi-directional and fully replayable. But even before you get to that, you have three cities to choose from (giving a different ability each, plus a different base setup). And the sky tiles are reversible, with a tougher side on the back. You always play with four sky tiles, so the more you flip over the tougher it gets. When you add in the campaign, the replayability is huge.
  • Theme, narrative & the ending: This is a mechanical euro-style puzzle game with dice used to claim action spaces. But the theme works, while tension builds as the mother ship starts to descend and time begins to run out. There are no adventure game elements. Your dice rolls influence your decisions rather than deciding the outcome of your choices. In terms of narrative, again I wish I could talk about the campaign. Let’s just say it adds quite a lot of personality to an otherwise quite mechanical experience. And the game has a pretty good story arc, with tension building throughout.

Key observations

The Under Falling Skies board game uses a small set of components to create a surprisingly varied experience, with multiple paths to victory. In my first play I was totally gung-ho, ignoring ships and letting my base take damage while rushing to do my research. In my next play I handled the ships better and took my time. Then next time I got my excavator to its lowest level fast, using the powerful lower base actions to come back from the brink. And that’s just the basic game.

Tactically there are other things I haven’t mentioned. The mothership unleashes extra ships, but these only need to be destroyed once. And there are spaces on the board where, if a ship lands on them, the mothership gets to drop an extra row. Sounds bad, but it doesn’t trigger its ‘end of round’ ability. Avoiding this (for example, losing precious research) can win you the game. Just another thing you need to weigh up each time you’re looking blankly at the dice you’ve rolled!

To date, no real criticisms have come up. I expect some will say it isn’t thematic enough, or this enough, or that enough. But for now it is basking, quite rightly, in pretty universal praise. But it is what it is. A 30-45 minute thinky puzzle, with dice adding that random factor every solo game needs. Choosing one space means you’re missing out on another, so you’re always thinking on your feet. And it’s very much tactical. Because if the dice say ‘no’. any grand strategy for the turn goes out the window.

Conclusion: The Under Falling Skies board game

For me, Under Falling Skies offers up a fantastic solo board game experience. If you want a long, adventure heavy experience then no – you won’t get that here. But if you’re happy with a sub-hour game heavy on the puzzle but with a coherent theme, plus bundles of replayability, I highly recommend it. Now, let me get back to my campaign… Hello boys! I’m baaaack!

Essen Spiel 2020 releases – game reviews live and incoming

The box art for Essen 2020 release Lost Ruins of Arnak

So the reviews are starting to come in for the Essen Spiel 2020 releases. I wasn’t massively excited about the list of titles this year, but there are bound to be some great new board games. And with just one review in from me so far, things are looking more hopeful than I’d thought.

This will be an evolving post until about March, so please bookmark and pop back once a month so. I’d love to go faster with the reviews, but the new UK lockdown is making things more difficult. I’ll update the list as review copies are confirmed and when reviews go live. As you can imagine, it’s quite a task for publishers to have to deal with all this via post/email rather than face to face, so I’m not holding my breath. But given time, the games will come! Some are already on the shelves, and more are on the way.

Essen Spiel 2020 releases: Game reviews – live

  • Anansi (1-5 players, 30-60 mins)
    Reprint, with new art, of clever trick-taking game Eternity.
  • Aqualin (2 players, 20 mins) Very light abstract with both players scoring the same pieces, but in different ways.
  • Bonfire (1-4 players, 1-2 hours) Point salad-y Stefan Feld euro game, at the high end of complexity for his game designs.
  • Lost Ruins of Arnak (1-4 players, 1-2 hours)
    Deck building/action selection/resource conversion euro.
  • Under Falling Skies (1 player, 20-30 mins)
    Sci-fi/save the world solo dice puzzler, including full campaign mode.

Spiel reviews incoming

  • Curious Cargo (Being played – 2 players, 45 mins) Pick up and deliver, tile placement and route building in this factory-based one-on-one puzzler.
  • Gods Love Dinosaurs (Being played – 2-5 players, 45 mins) Light tile-laying game where players create sustainable food chains.

The ‘hopefully’ list

I’m also hoping to get my hands on all the other games on my recent Essen wishlist post. And of course I’d love to hear about the new games on your shelves – and the ones you can’t wait to get your hands on. Reach out on Facebook or Twitter and let me know what I’ve missed and need to check out.