They happen every year – usually multiple times: family gatherings. Whether they are a holiday like Christmas or a family reunion we all have times when we get together with large groups of related people. Usually, free time during these events is spent eating, watching TV or, these days, looking at a phone so you don’t have to talk with your weird uncle. We here at the Pub think that these gatherings are prime opportunities for games. The question is, what games do you bring that might fit all of the different social situations? We are here to help.
For those of us in the hobby, I think picking games for game night and taking games to a family event follow a similar process. Like a carefully selected flight of Scotch, we try to anticipate the experience of other potential players, knowing a bad experience might keep them from the table. Family events, however, have an advantage over other kinds of gateway initiations in that we know these people.
Play their games
When I’m with the Millers (mom’s side) we want loud party games. And as much as I want to take Codenames or Resistance, they’re going to be drawn to the table by Taboo, Catchphrase, or Apples to Apples. So I play the games they bring or have around (as much as I dread Apples to Apples) because that’s where my extended family enjoys to game. Then if they’re feeling adventurous I might break out something else, but only if I get a sense they trust me to not waste their time. Even though I’m sure they’ll like Codenames, they’re not sure yet.
That’s usually where the apprehension comes from when we feel like we’re begging people to come play with us or we sense the uncomfortable looks when we start explaining a new game. It’s a lack of trust that we can take care of the fun. So I feel it’s better that I’m less interested in the game rather than trying to convince the group they’re having a good time.
Bring games they would buy
Your family likes Uno, Phase 10, or Skip-Bo? Bring something that looks like Uno, Phase 10, or Skip-Bo (but is not). Red7, Fuji Flush, or 12 Days are really just cards with numbers on them. Big deal, right? Non-gamer’s preconceptions of a game are mostly associated with the size of the box (or tuckbox) and the complexity of the information on the components. They’re not thinking of mechanics when they sit down, but what the game looks like. While you may assure them, “Don’t worry, this game is not that complex..,” colored numbers on cards are easy to digest and you wouldn’t need to convince them, especially if they’re already accustomed to the Wal-mart tuckbox fare.
Ask before you pack
It’s easy. “Hey, I have a game I think you’ll like. It’s a lot like that other one you liked that one year when we were at that one place doing that one thing. Want me to bring it?” We live in the age of texting and Facebook messaging so it’s not a stretch. They’re probably not going to say no and if it’s a game you really think they’ll enjoy then you’ve already got them involved. Hopefully, they actually like it, now.
Look, your family already knows you’re a gamer and are probably thinking of excuses to not get pulled into one of your games. At least that’s my experience. I’ve been “that guy” in my social/family sphere for a while. So now I let them take me where they want to game and usually only make small course corrections to their experience.
I like to tailor my games to the group that will be there. For my wife’s side of the family, party games and lighter fare seem to be a hit. My sisters, mother and brother-in-law like party games as well as something with a little more strategy to it so I’ll bring some bigger boxes to those gatherings. When you’re unsure of just who will be there or who might be interested in gaming, it’s important to bring games with approachable themes and to think about the ease of play as well as how easy it is to teach to a group. I’ll break my list down into a few categories and include a few I’d suggest for each.
This is probably the most obvious category for a family gathering. These games tend to be light, fun and full of interaction. Two that I’d recommend are Codenames and Hearts of Attraction. Codenames is easy to learn, plays fairly quickly and is just plain fun. Sliding magnetic hearts on a table in Hearts of Attraction is fun, super easy to learn and will likely have everyone wanting to play multiple rounds of this simple game.
Social Deduction Games
Games like Coup (and Coup: Rebellion), Love Letter, Werewolf in all its many incarnations, and The Resistance are all fun games that require social interaction between players and are generally easy to teach and pick up. As a side benefit, these games tend to be pretty easy to set up and take down and most come in small boxes so you can often pack several options for a get-together.
If you are brave enough to try and teach Aunt Brunhilda how to play a euro game, I salute you. Here are a few picks that should be pretty easy to teach to a group. For tile laying games I’d recommend Alhambra, Carcassone and Isle of Skye. For worker placement games I’d have to recommend Lords of Waterdeep and New Bedford. Waterdeep’s fantasy D&D theme might put some non-gamers off but once you show them the mechanics and simplify it down to just getting the right cubes to complete each mission the game’s theme seems to be forgotten. New Bedford benefits from it’s smaller box, which should stow away in a bag much easier than most games and it’s short game length won’t commit anyone to a two-hour session. Another game worth mentioning here is Traders of Osaka, which manages to pack quite a bit of strategy into a relatively short card game.
Dixit and Mysterium are also games worth considering. They are relatively easy to teach and, with the right group, offer a fun and unique experience. I’ve also had quite a bit of success with Wurfel Bonhanza as just about everybody enjoys rolling some dice and the game encourages you to pay attention on other players turns so no one feels like they are just waiting for their turn to come around.
I’ll conclude with the thought that gaming with family and non-gaming friends should carry different expectations than gaming with one’s regular group. Be willing to play other people’s games, don’t expect to get someone to play that component heavy, meaty euro you brought with you and understand that people may just want to play that game of dominos instead of what you brought.
When planning what games to bring to family gatherings I really try to remember my audience. Most of these people think of Monopoly when they think of board games. Because of this, I try to bring games with accessible themes that aren’t too complex, on the shorter side, and that you can teach easily – you need to be familiar with the games you bring. Occasionally someone will request something heavier which, of course, I oblige. Below are the categories I try to fill with some games that have had some success at family gatherings.
Party Games – Codenames, Wits and Wagers, Concept, Hearts of Attraction
These are good since they are easy to get out with any crowd and can be played with a large age range – gets anyone interested involved.
Quick Games – Love Letter, Sushi Go, Red 7
These fit a tight time window well. Have twenty minutes before an event? Fill it with these.
Kids Games – Animal upon Animal, Robot Turtles, Ticket to Ride: First Journey
Young kids love to play games, especially if they see adults having fun.
2-player Games – Onitama, Patchwork, Hive
Sometimes you can only convince one other person to play so it is nice to have games that are meant to play with 2.
Longer Games – Potion Explosion, Forbidden Desert, King of Tokyo, Takenoko
These are the heaviest and longest games I will bring in case I can get a good group with about an hour to play.
Tradition Games – This was an idea I had a few years ago – get a few people excited about creating a tradition out of a campaign game. Every time we got together we would try and get at least one game in. My first experiment with this was Risk Legacy, but I could see any Legacy game working for this as well as Descent, Imperial Assault, TIME Stories or another campaign game. The people in this group know and get excited for the next family gathering so that our game can continue.
When I was a kid we had many holiday family gatherings. Many times during those visits my family would sit around a table and play various mindless card games while they chatted through the night. As an adult and particularly as a board game hobbyist I have been exposed to so much goodness that I feel it is my responsibility to share with them. These are the games I tend to take with me when going to family get togethers. Each one has a particular role to fill.
2-Player: Hive, Star Realms
I rarely take two player games to family events as the whole goal of going is to socialize and these basically do the opposite of that. Sometimes having one handy is a good idea, though.
Card: Clubs, Diamonds, Wizard … Parade, Sushi Go Party
The first bunch is for those that have overplayed trick-taking games like Spades or Hearts. They offer some depth beyond just going null or shooting the moon. Wizard, in particular, is a good replacement if you’re tired of playing Texas Hold ‘Em. The last two are for the families that like to play things like Rummy, Skip-Bo, or Canasta. These offer variants on set collection that are fun and engaging.
Tile: Quirkle, Lanterns, Carcassonne
If you want something other than Dominoes this year, Quirkle or Lanterns are both great alternatives. They provide a multitude of options which reduce the luck element significantly. If you need more than four players Carcassonne is a great family game. It can be a bit heavier but it’s still fairly easy to learn. Make sure to start small and not flood them with a bunch of expansions.
Party: Dixit, Tapple, Telestrations
These games are for larger groups that all want to play together. They provide some excellent laughter moments. Games like Apples to Apples can be too one-dimensional and subjective but these are much more open ended which can be more inviting to several different crowds.
Dice: King of Tokyo, Machi Koro
King of Tokyo uses Yahtzee’s basic idea and crushes it. It’s great for the younger kids too. They will love picking out a new monster as they play it over and over again. Machi Koro is a light engine building game that’s basically a shorter, better version of Monopoly where you get to do stuff on other players’ turns.
Board: Jamaica, Ticket to Ride, Takenoko
If you’re looking for some light to medium weight games that have more table real estate, these are a few good ones. You can race pirate ships in Jamaica, ride trains in Ticket to Ride, or feed the local panda in Takenoko. The latter is my go to if you want some good depth that is easy to grasp. Takenoko introduces some new concepts that family members may not have seen before and it’s visually stunning. More than any other, I’ve been asked to bring Takenoko with me during the holidays.