2021 Tabletop Gaming Last Minute Gift Guide

It’s that time of year again, when you need to come up with holiday gifts for the gamers in your life, and they aren’t so kind as to provide a detailed wish list for your convenience. And we gamers can be an especially difficulty bunch to shop for, because – unless you pay close attention when we’re chattering about our new acquisitions – it can be hard to know exactly which game or expansion we’ve picked up. We are, after all, a picky bunch – we don’t want just any old game, or a second copy something we bought a few months ago. And the holidays are about a week away, so you need a suggestion that’s actually going to be in stock and delivered by Christmas, despite recent supply chain disruptions. This can make some of the newest, hottest games unavailable. But below you’ll find a nice selection of games and accessories, recent ones where possible, that you can still delivered to your door before the goose gets too fat.

Gateway Games – Labeled “gateway” games because they lead you into this wonderful hobby of ours. Because gateway games are by their nature often the first hobby board games that folks run into, and recency of publication is less of an issue. So we’ll lead this off with the perennial favorite Ticket to Ride. Players collect cards of various colors, which they use to claim railroad tracks across the United States and Canada. Other amazing games introduce core designer game concepts. Splendor features engine-building, where a player takes early, weaker actions to lay a foundation to take more powerful actions as the game goes on. In Splendor, those basic actions are selecting these gorgeous poker-style gem chips, which are used to buy cards, which then permanently make later cards cheaper, and before you know it you’re standing on a pile of victory points. You probably can’t get Splendor itself before Christmas, but you can get the new Splendor: Marvel, which takes these mechanics and adds in a few Infinity Gems. Another foundational mechanic is worker placement. The game board features a number of action spots, and each player has a limited number of workers to assign to those spots, often subject to fierce competition. A great entry-level worker placement game is Lords of Waterdeep. In this Dungeons & Dragons themed board game, the players use their workers to gather adventurers like resources and send them out to tackled threats or implement schemes in the great urban fantasy city of Waterdeep. Any of these three makes a great first designer board game. And if your gamer already has one of them, all three have expansions on offer as well.

The Quacks of Quedlinburg and Lost Ruins of Arnak – These games exemplify two different ways to implement a central core mechanic – in this case, pool-building. A pool-building game is one where players start off with a small number of weak-ish options that are randomly available to them every turn. The very first of these games were deck-building games, so that meant a small deck of cards. Over the course of the game, the players would acquire more and more new options (e.g., cards) to add to the pool. Early games using this mechanic, like Dominion, were almost all about that deck-building. But as the years have passed the core mechanic has been used in more and more creative ways. Lost Ruins of Arnak (released in 2020) uses deck-building as part of a larger game with more traditional Euro-game mechanics. The deck represents part of the players’ ability to explore into the jungle, along with more traditional resource gathering, moving up research tracks, and the like. Instead of many turns of slowly refining the deck, Lost Ruins of Arnak takes place over a smaller number of turns, but the complexity and potency of those turns quickly escalates as the players’ options become much more powerful. This had made Lost Ruins of Arnak a hit among the ‘serious’ gamer set. The Quacks of Quedlinburg forgoes ‘deck-building’ entirely in favor of ‘bag-building’ – instead of drawing cards out of a deck, players pull tokens out of a small cloth bag. The players are brewing every fancier potions to sell at the fair, using their early sales to fund the purchase of more exotic ingredients to add to their bags for later turns. There is a significant push your luck element to the game as well, as players have to judge when the best time is to stop pulling ingredients out of their bag – too many of the wrong sort of token pulled out and the potion will explode, costing the player victory points. The Quacks of Quedlinburg is one of those games that both experienced gamers and newcomers have a great time with.


Genotype: A Mendelian Genetics Game – Genius Games has developed its reputation making real designer games that happen to convey real scientific concepts (I’m sorry, but most ‘educational games’ are kind of bad as games). Their latest is Genotype, a worker placement/dice drafting game. The goal of the game is to gain victory points by meeting objective cards, which happen to expressed in terms of creating pea plants with certain characteristics. Worker placement actions involve obtaining new plants, gathering tools, and conducting research, while dice drafting lets the players influence the genetics of their next generation of pea plants. All of which, because this is a Genius Game, using scientifically accurate terminology (although it is substantially more fun that actually gardening pea plants for years on end in a 19th century monastery). My household happens to own this because there’s a current college student who’s been taking biology classes (we also recently got the older-but-maybe-better Cytosis: A Cell Biology Game for the same reason), but there’s a lot of overlap between ‘gamers’ and ‘nerds’ (myself included) so there’s a good chance your gamer will like this sort of thing as well.

Mansions of Madness – One of the innovations in board games in recent years is using apps to control parts of the game that would have once required a player to handle – everyone gets the full game experience. Add in voice work and music from the app and that can be one heck of an experience. The leading example of these is Mansions of Madness (Second Edition). A tour de force on fusing theme and game design, Mansions of Madness is suffused with the eldritch horror vibes of the Cthulhu Mythos, as updated by Fantasy Flight Games. The players in Mansions of Madness, a cooperative game, each control an investigator looking into some manner of unexplained weirdness. Sometimes this takes places in one of the eponymous mansions, but it may be out in small town streets, or a bit further out of doors (expansions add more exotic locations like ships, jungles, and trains). Regardless, the app holds the secrets, telling the players how to set up a small array of map tiles to start with, then adding more tiles and providing more information as the investigators find additional clues. The investigators are always on the clock, trying to resolve the mystery before unnatural terrors overwhelm them. It’s a great game, but not a cheap one – which can be handy for gift-giving, if it’s in your price range but the cost has dissuaded your gamer from picking it up. And if your gamer already has Mansions of Madness, there are a multitude of expansions available (and can arrive before Christmas). (If you can find it in time, 2020’s Forgotten Waters – a competitive pirate-themed offering – also plays in the app-driven-narrative space, but it’s harder to get by the holidays.)

Stonemaier Games – I was compiling this list and, upon realizing that I had multiple possible entries from Stonemaier, I decided to just give them their own section. It’s a real testament to the consistent quality on display in their games – and I can’t even include 2019 Game of the Year Wingspan, which I’m not including here because it’s still hard to find. First up is the inexpensive Rolling Realms, which is a brand-new entry in the ever-expanding roll ‘n’ write category. Rolling Realms started out as a game playable over pandemic-drive video chats, and has now seen publication in physical form with dry erase markers and cards. In Rolling Realms players use the results of communal dice rolls to activate one of several ‘realms’ (all of which are named after other Stonemaier games). Each ‘realm’ is its own mini-game, with the players deciding to how best assign the dice to the realms to maximize points. Or you can go for the perfected version of the Stonemaier game that started it all with the Viticulture Essential Edition. Another worker placement game, players in Viticulture are running their own wineries – planting grapes, building structures, hosting tours, crafting wine, and filling orders. A step up from Lords of Waterdeep in complexity, Viticulture spreads the actions across the different seasons of the year (you can’t plant grapes in Tuscany in November, after all). A fantastic game to start with, the tweaked Essential Edition is perfection.

Dungeons & Dragons – The difficulty with gifting Dungeons & Dragons is that if your gamer already plays Dungeons & Dragons, they’ll typically already have the core books (if they don’t, there’s a core rulebook gift set waiting for you). And a lot of D&D players pick up all of the books. Conveniently, however, the most recent Dungeons & Dragons book came out on December 7, so it’s a reasonable bet they won’t have it yet. That book – Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos – is a fantastic blend of social, academic, and adventuring elements. If your D&D player likes to talk about the cool stories they tell with the game, A Curriculum of Chaos will work well. If they like to talk about cool combat encounters, however, you’d want to go with one of the older books. If they’re the Dungeon Master, try Tales From the Yawning Portal, which collects some of the greatest of older D&D adventures and updates them to the current edition. If they’re a player, the most recent rules expansion is Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, which provides a lot of new subclasses and other character options (we D&D players love our new character options).

Another way to go is accessories. Many D&D players love dice, but are already loaded up with them. But D&D players almost inherently like books too (the games are in books, after all) and Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History is amazing. There’s loads of information on the early history of the game and, as you might guess from the title, it’s lavishly illustrated. There’s old school art, photographs, marketing materials, sketches – you name it, there’s a picture of it, along with dozens of interviews. And this isn’t some slim selection of material – it’s a 450-page behemoth on the coffee table. There’s even an extra-fancy boxed set with art prints – I own that one, but I have to admit that probably only a diehard fan is going to appreciate that enough to justify paying more than twice as much.

Roleplaying Games (non-D&D edition) – Dungeons & Dragons may be “the world’s greatest roleplaying game,” but it certainly isn’t the world’s only roleplaying game. There are a plethora to choose from out there, depending on what themes your gamer appreciates. If they like the fantasy vibe of Dungeons & Dragons, and want to try out a crunchier implementation of that, then there’s Pathfinder (Second Edition). But roleplaying games can also feature completely different genres, themes, and types of rules. One rules-lite, often socially-focused ruleset that’s seen widespread use is “Powered by the Apocalypse.” The need to identify something that’s widely and immediately available limits some of these more independent options that use these rules, but a great one that fits the bill is Monster of the Week. Reminiscent of shows like The X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the characters must tackle the GM’s pick of unnatural threats. A more horror-themed experience is on offer from the Alien: The Roleplaying Game. The game allows for traditional campaign play, exploring the universe established in the Alien movies. But it also features cinematic play – one-shot adventures where, just like in the movies, survival is far from guaranteed. The Alien RPG just came out this year and has already picked up awards.

Magic: The Gathering – Giving a gift to a CCG player is probably the toughest nut to crack if you aren’t intimately aware of what singles they need for their latest deck, because CCG products come out constantly and players tend to buy things right when they come out. There is, however, one Magic: The Gathering product that came out just this month – the Innistrad: Crimson Vow Gift Bundle (that’s an Amazon link so you can see what I’m talking about, but notwithstanding the great price being offered on Amazon right now, note that there are some real issues with repackaged MTG products on Amazon, so you might want to try your friendly local game store). The Crimson Vow expansion, which focuses heavily on vampires (always a winning theme for me), only recently came out, so the packs in the bundle are still new, and most of us still don’t get many of the excessively-blinged-out Collector Boosters. Plus there are some particulars – a cool storage box and oversize spindown die – that are unique to this product.

But, just like with Dungeons & Dragons, another way to go is accessories. And also like Dungeons & Dragons, but with even more options, one of my favorite MTG accessories is art books. There’s a whole “The Art of Magic: The Gathering” series of big, beautiful art books with lengthy world guides (MSRP $40, but available for ~$25-$32). MTG has some amazing art, and it’s great to be able to see that on something larger than a card. My favorite is the “Concepts & Legends” book that provides a lot of history (and even comes with a case and some art prints). The most recent one is War of the Spark, which is about the fabled planeswalker war against Nicol Bolas. But whatever your gamer’s favorite plane is, if there was a block set there then there’s probably a book about it – Innistrad, Ravnica, Zendikar, Kaladesh, or Ixalan.

That’s all for this year! Happy holidays!


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