With Thanksgiving in the rear view mirror it’s officially holiday shopping season, including for the tabletop gamer’s in your life. And we can sometimes be a hard group to shop for, what with all of the different flavors of game and personal preferences out there (not to mention whether a particular game is readily available at the moment). Sure, you could grab whatever’s on sale – but that’s unlikely to hit the mark. Or you could spend a lot of extra energy playing extra close attention to whatever your gamer is going on about lately … but I know from personal experience how unlikely that is to happen. So it’s time for the annual Strange Assembly Holiday Gift Guide, where we give you a few quick picks for the tabletop gamer on your gift list.
Board and Card Games: The New Hotness – Released in the last year or two, these games will help fulfill your gamers need for the latest and greatest. They tend to be more complicated, have more and fancier components, and higher price tags than your typical board game (which means we gamers usually can’t afford them all and there will be something here that we still want). Hot off the presses (and one of the hottest games at Gen Con 2022) is Planet Unknown, which has a lot of table presence because features an actual Lazy Susan as part of the components. That Lazy Susan dishes out terraforming tiles as the players try to create their optimal planetary surface. On the really heavy side of things is Ark Nova, widely considered one of the top (if not the top) board game of 2021. This card drafting and management game is themed around zoological preservation, with players attempting to build their own establishments, support conservation projects, and possibly even reintroduce species back into the wild. The Quacks of Quedlinburg Mega Box is the lightest game in this section, and my nod to deck/bag/pool-building games (we gamers do like to vary our component types). In Quacks players develop a bag of tokens representing potion ingredients – brew the best potions to sell at the fair, use the money to buy better ingredients, and eventually turn that into victory points. There’s a significant push-your-luck element as well, as players’ potions can explode if packed too full. The Mega Box features the Quacks base game and both expansions. A brand new offering is Jurassic Park: The Legacy of Isla Nublar. The appearance of the word “legacy” is no coincidence, as Legacy of Isla Nublar is a “legacy game” – a campaign game where components are added, altered, and destroyed during the course of the campaign. After all, once those velociraptors escape into the wilds of that dinosaur park you’re working on, they don’t just magically disappear next season – they’re still there needing to be dealt with. Players will breed new types of dinosaur, invest in new attractions and, one hopes, safety features, while unlocking mystery boxes of components over the course of the campaign.
Board and Card Games: 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 can get 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.
Board and Card Games: Modern Classics – These games rest somewhere between gateway games and the latest big thing. They’ve got more complicated mechanics (but usually not too complicated), but aren’t the latest craze – they’ve been around a few years and withstood the test of time. Azul is a game of beautiful tile-laying (or is that a beautiful game of tile-laying?) where players draft tiles to make patterns, trying to complete rows and columns and color sets while not ending up with unusable tiles, which end up broken on the floor for negative points. Continuing the “the game is gorgeous” theme is Wingspan, an engine-building game where the engine involves establishing a bird sanctuary – hatch the birds, feed the birds, breed the birds, and continue the circle of life using cards with wonderfully-illustrated depictions of and information on actual bird species. Or you can get a bit boozy with 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. Our last classic for the day is 7 Wonders, which was great to begin with but has a recent second edition. Players in this card-drafting game take their civilization through multiple eras, focusing on monuments, science, military, or trade while trying to create synergies between their prior developments and new selections. One of the best features of 7 Wonders is the ease with which it supports large player counts (up to, yes, 7 players) by using simultaneous turns to minimize downtime. Finally, so I have at least one party game in this gift guide, there’s Codenames. Codenames pits teams of secret agents (players) against each other as they try to identify which citizens (cards with words on them) are working for which side. Each team has one player giving clues, but those clues can consist only of a single word and a single number, trying to choose words that will let their team pick their own cards and only their own cards. Plus, if you’ve got a big stocking, it’s cheap enough to be a stocking stuffer (if you’ve got a normal stocking go with Star Realms or any version of Love Letter).
Just Because It’s My Favorite Board Game – Mansions of Madness (Second Edition) – 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.
For the Dungeons & Dragons Player – Dragonlance: Shadow of the Dragon Queen and Call of the Netherdeep – There are several new official D&D adventures/campaigns each year, and there were two in 2022 that will make a solid gift. Shadow of the Dragon Queen marks the return of the classic Dragonlance setting and features themes of adventuring amidst a time of war and of classic D&D heroism. Call of the Netherdeep is set in the world of the wildly popular Critical Role actual play streams and puts more attention on interpersonal relationships and morally complex antagonists. I happen to like Call of the Netherdeep more (despite liking Dragonlance quite a bit more than Critical Role), but the better gift is going to depend on how those themes match your recipient’s interest. If they’re into old school adventures of the good guys versus a grand evil, go with Shadow of the Dragon Queen. If they want more social play alongside their combat (or if they got into D&D through watching Critical Role), go with Call of the Netherdeep. If you’re pretty sure you D&D player is the sort who buys every single rulebook the moment it comes out, then Art & Arcana: A Visual History is a fabulous exploration of the creation and early development of Dungeons & Dragons. Or, if you’re getting someone their first first introduction to Dungeons & Dragons, go with the original Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set (they came out with a new one this year, but I like the adventure in the first one better).
For the other RPG players – There’s a wide array of tabletop roleplaying games for those who want to explore beyond Dungeons & Dragons, or entirely beyond a traditional fantasy combat-focused rule set. For those still looking to have both the newest and oldest thing in fantasy roleplaying, there’s The One Ring – this version of the game is brand new, and a bunch of D&D was based on Tolkien’s Middle-earth anyway. On the science fiction front (and another media license for those who like the latest movies) is Dune – Adventures in the Imperium (Editor’s note – That link is for the standard edition of the core book, but at the time of writing the Amazon-exclusive Harkonnen Collector’s Edition of the exact same book is a measly $12.49.). Player’s in the Dune RPG take on the role of elite agents for noble houses and plunge into the byzantine world of high politics and violence on the desert world of Arrakis. There are a number of more modern, horror-based roleplaying games out that allow play as either the monsters or the monster hunters. On the monster side is the 5th edition of Vampire: The Masquerade, the storytelling game of personal and political horror where characters must struggle for power and survival against the other vampires while also struggling to retain their own humanity in the face of their inner beast and it’s need for blood. On the hunter side of things 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. Monster of the Week uses the highly popular indie RPG “Powered by the Apocalypse” rule set, and so does Masks: A New Generation, which is my personal favorite superhero roleplaying game. Drawing inspiration from youth hero teams like the Teen Titans or Young Avengers, Masks uses straightforward mechanics to let the game explore not only the characters’ superheroics but also their interpersonal relationships and the burdens of living up to society’s expectations of them (where else could something like “kiss a super villain” be a relevant mechanical goal for a character?).
For the Magic: The Gathering Player – The Brothers’ War Gift Bundle – Shopping for MTG players is tough. If you’re already highly in tune with which individual cards your recipient wants, you don’t need a gift guide. Barring that unlikely scenario, the problem is that a lot of Magic players purchase what they want to sealed product right when it comes out. So I could tell you that the Commander decks for The Brothers’ War, with their retro frames, are really cool for an enfranchised player – but there’s a good chance that if your player wants those decks, they bought them when they were released. Enter the Brothers’ War Gift Bundle which, as you can guess from the name, is specifically designed for gifting purposes – and it releases in December, making it less likely that players will have already picked one up. In addition to some standard sealed booster packs from the latest set, the Gift Bundle has a Collector Booster (which are priced too high for most players to buy boxes of), some bonuses that are available in the normal version of the bundle as well (like a unique promo card and an oversized spindown d20), and some bonuses that are only in the gift version (a foil treatment on the storage box, a foil Transformers/MTG crossover promo). Like all things MTG, you’ve got to pay attention to the price (the cost of a Gift Bundle shouldn’t be all that much more than the cost of a standard bundle), but The Brothers’ War Gift Bundle is a good pick for a gift for an existing Magic player. If you think your Magic player really has all of the cards they need, then (much like with D&D above) there are accessories, and on that front I would recommend The Art of Magic: The Gathering: Concepts & Legends. It’s part of a whole series of coffee table Magic art and world books, but this one is my favorite because it’s about the early history of the game. On the other hand, if you want to introduce someone to Magic for the first time, go for the 2022 version of Game Night: Free-for-All.
Strange Assembly may earn commissions from affiliate links in this article.