“Now what should I get for Aunt Martha who doesn’t know any board games besides Sorry!.” If you identify with this situation, this article’s for you. You know it’s an uphill climb to give gifts to those unfamiliar with board gaming, so we’re opening up the Board Game Quest bunker survival database to release our recommended gifts. Got an actuarial inclined uncle? Send him a Eurogame! Aunt Sofia got a thing for cute games? We got that. Cousin Rupert loves getting everyone together for a party. (sigh) Yeah, we got those too.
In addition, this year, we’ve unleashed the gaming gremlins (IT IS a holiday movie!) to grab the best list of titles for a 2021 holiday season that REALLY, REALLY needs to be better than last year. The guide has a variety of categories to help you narrow down what games to add first to your shopping list. Enjoy!
2021 Board Game Gift Guide
Classic Board Games
Every year we try to start off the guide with the classics. These are games that have not only made their mark on our hobby, but have stood the test of time. If you are not sure where to start, any of these gems would make the perfect gift. They have been enjoyed by millions of gamers and are readily available in most major stores.
Ticket to Ride (review)
Designer Alan Moon created this gem back in 2004 and it continues to make its way to gaming tables even to this day. It’s fun, accessible, and has a ton of expansions for added variety. In Ticket to Ride, you are trying to build train routes across major cities on the board. The gameplay makes this one quick to learn and fast to play. If you have played card games like Rummy or Gin, then Ticket to Ride should be an easy transition.
No game is more relevant to our current life than Pandemic. Designer Matt Leacock has created a cooperative game that has players racing against time to cure four diseases threatening the world. Pandemic is one of the most popular cooperative board games and has long since become a staple in every gamer’s collection. Pandemic is easy to learn and very challenging to win, which helps give the game high replay value. It has also inspired a number of thematic offshoots should you be looking for more Pandemic options.
Catan is the granddaddy of board games and is probably most Americans’ first experience with a “Eurogame.” In this game of trading and construction, players must build up their settlements and roads by using the island’s five resources. The game features very easy-to-learn mechanics and a healthy dose of player interaction via the importance of trading resources. Catan is a game that every gamer will probably play at least once and is one of the ultimate “gateway games.”
7 Wonders (review)
7 Wonders is a fantastic card game that introduced players to the card drafting (pick and pass) genre. In 7 Wonders, after you select your card, you then pass your remaining hand of cards to the player sitting next to you. The gameplay is very unique, it has a quick playtime, and expands all the way up to 7 players with zero loss of quality or added length. 7 Wonders is easily one of our favorite games and one we’re always willing to play.
Carcassonne is a tile-laying game with almost no setup time because you build the game board as you play! In Carcassonne, players are building out cities, roads, monasteries, and farms to try to score the most victory points. Each turn, a player will draw a tile and add it to the tiles already on the table. If the player completes one of their buildings, they score victory points for it. The rules are simple, the turns quick, and the game is very accessible.
Cooperative Board Games:
Board games don’t always have to be about head-to-head competition. Sometimes, the joy of camaraderie and working together is what people crave. Cooperative boards games pit you and your fellow players against the game itself. Some are more action-oriented, while others have a more puzzly nature to them.
G. I. Joe Deck-Building Game
Looking for a gift for a child of the 80s? The G.I. Joe Deck-Building Game is not only a really fun game but also serves up a healthy dose of nostalgia. Each player gets to control one of the iconic Joes such as Duke, Flint, Lady Jayne, or Snake Eyes. Over the course of the game, you build up a deck full of other Joes, gear, and items to take on COBRA in a series of missions. Draft some cards, roll some dice, and put a stop to Cobra Commander’s nefarious scheme.
Pandemic Legacy: Season Zero
The Pandemic Legacy system is not only one of the best cooperative experiences out there, but also an amazing series of legacy games. And Pandemic Legacy Season Zero caps off the trilogy in the form of a prequel to the other two games. This time, you are thrust into the 1960s as you must deal with a Cold War threat in the form of a Soviet bioweapon that, if unleashed, could destroy life as we know it.
This cooperative game has players taking on the role of an elite set of special forces trying to fight back an alien invasion. What’s unique about Project Elite is that the main part of the game is played in real-time. This will have you and your teammates frantically rolling dice to try and fight back the aliens before the timer runs out. And this second edition has not only updated components, but rules as well. Gear up, grab some dice, and see if you can save humanity!
While the name may suggest that these are games to play at a party, they are really more about social interaction and casual gameplay. A party game can usually accommodate a large number of players (but not required) and features really simple rules with lots of interaction.
Dreadful Circus is a fast strategy game designed by Bruno Faidutti that takes players to a mysterious world somewhere at the bottom of their minds. As circus directors you will try to organize an unforgettable evening of shows—fighting with each other to attract the attention of the largest audience. The wonderful, dark graphic layer is just a taste. It promises to be fierce competition based on bidding, negotiations, and negative interaction!
Ready for your next game night favorite? Then bring your A-Game with Asymbol! Take your imagination sky-high as you build 3D forms from fun wooden shapes while others try and guess what you’re making. Players take turns drawing category cards and creating one of the two subjects shown on the card. You’ll strategize your build using the 47 simple shapes to illustrate buildings, things, beings, places, events, and activities. The resourceful builder and the correct guesser dominate the game, and the player with the most points wins Asymbol!
Don’t Get Got
This is a party game that you don’t sit down at the table to play. Instead, you play Don’t Get Got! all throughout the evening. At the start of the game, each player is given a handful of secret tasks, such as changing your shirt and getting someone to notice. If you succeed, you earn a point. But if someone calls you out that you are trying to accomplish a mission, you fail it. Don’t Get Got is a great meta game to play throughout your gaming session and is really unique as well.
Similo takes the Mysterium concept and distills it down to its essence. A dozen characters are laid out in a grid and one player, the clue giver, needs to help the rest of the players guess who the secret character is. Each round, the clue giver will play a card that will either be similar to the secret character, or different. And the rest of the players must eliminate characters they think are not the right one, hoping they don’t actually eliminate the secret character and lose!
Ever wonder what it is like to be a police sketch artist? Well now you can with MonsDRAWsity. In this party game, one player, the witness, has 20 seconds to look at a picture of a monster, and then they have to describe it to the other players who must sketch it out. The witness then awards points to the player who best sketched out the monster. You don’t need a ton of artistic skills to play MonsDRAWsity, as the sketching is quick and frantic.
Not every game needs a group of players to be enjoyable. Whether it’s simply you and a friend, or you are looking for something to play with your significant other, a 2-player game will fit the bill.
Invasion of the Brood (review)
The Brood have invaded the earth, so humanity must mount their defense to save the planet. This is a two-player, asymmetrical game designed by Sandy Petersen in which the two sides have greatly different strategies, abilities, and even turn structures. Will humanity be able to stop the alien invasion, or will the sinister Broodmaster take over the world?!
Undaunted: North Africa
The award-winning Undaunted North Africa takes players away from the beaches of Normandy in the original game and this time moves the war to North Africa. One player controls the forces of the British army, while the other takes command of the formidable Italian forces. Expanding the gameplay from the original Undaunted, North Africa takes a more unit-level approach and even has drivable vehicles for players to command.
A dexterity game that definitely has a good “toy factor.” Catapult Feud tasks players with building a plastic castle, and then using a set of catapults to try and knock down your opponent’s fortress. The rules are simple, yet the gameplay is highly addictive. Not only do you get to have fun building a castle, but being able to destroy your opponent’s hard work lets all of us embrace our inner devious side.
Curious Cargo (review)
If you want to experience what gamers tend to refer to as “brain burn,” Curious Cargo is a great game to pick up. You’ll be building out a network to ship goods out of your facility and receive them from your opponent. The rules are pretty straightforward but there is a lot to consider. Not to mention a spatial puzzle of trying to lay your pipes out in a way to place and receive goods. There’s a ton of variety with plenty of different player boards and an option to add in a third good to deliver.
In stark contrast to war games, the eurogame prioritizes managing resources and collecting victory points over direct conflict. There are many games that fall in this category, from light to heavy, and the euro game can appeal to a broad number of gamers.
Origins: First Builders
In Origins: First Builders, players are members of a powerful space-faring race that visits Earth regularly to bestow gifts to humanity. You will influence the construction of buildings and monuments, guide a population of your freemen, climb the three mighty zodiac temples, and take part in an arms race—all in an effort to leave the greatest mark on mankind’s ancient history. The game features mechanics such as dice worker placement, drafting, and tile placement. As the game develops, your city will grow in both size and strength as you add new building tiles. If you are looking for a euro game with a great theme, Origins: First Builders is worth checking out!
Tabannusi: Builders of Ur
The next game in the “T” series, Tabannusi: Builders of Ur is set in ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. Players work to build the Great City of Ur, expand its districts, and establish themselves as powerful builders. Players will use their workers to activate districts, granting them dice to use for actions. The “T” series of games has produced a lot of great euros over the years with deep mechanics and unique gameplay. If you know a gamer that loves heavy euro games, Tabannusi: Builders of Ur is a great option.
Lost Ruins of Arnak (review)
Lost Ruins of Arnak took home the award for our BGQ Game of the Year and once you play it, it won’t be hard to see why. This hybrid deck builder and worker placement game has players on an expedition searching for buried treasure in the jungle. With many paths to victory, lots of resources to manage, and even some great artwork and components, Lost Ruins of Arnak is the perfect choice for the eurogamer on your list.
Your spaceship has crash landed on a strange planet. The sun is about to go down and you are certain to freeze to death. Your only hope is to reach the caverns to protect yourself and as many of your crewmates as possible. Cryo will have you placing workers to take a variety of actions, upgrading actions on your own player board, and scoring points for the members of the crew you can successfully place down in the caverns to stay warm and await rescue.
Engine building games generally have you spend resources to gain equipment that can be used to then generate even more resources. That’s basically what you’ll try in Furnace. But you’ll also have to bid on the machines you can take each round and hopefully put together a solid process to turn coal into steel and oil into cold hard cash. The unique player powers interact well with unique auction mechanics in this fast playing game.
Miniatures games, or minis games as they are more often referred to, are games for people who love those little plastic figures. Whether a painter at heart or just someone who can appreciate how cool the sculpts look, minis games are more popular than ever. Most of the time the gameplay in minis games are tactical in nature with lots of combat and dice chucking.
Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board Game (review)
Based on the best-selling video game, the Horizon Zero Dawn board game can be played both competitively or cooperatively. In the game, each player takes control of a unique character as you embark on a series of hunts to defeat the robotic dinosaurs that plague the land. Many parts of the game draw inspiration from the video game, including being able to shoot off parts of the machines, stalking your enemies in tall grass, and visiting merchants to purchase new gear, armor, and weapons.
Aliens Another Glorious Day in the Corps (review)
One of the most quotable movies ever gets its very own cooperative board game. In Aliens Another Glorious Day in the Corps, each player controls one of the iconic characters from the Aliens movie. You’ll embark on a series of missions where you are trying to hold back swarms of deadly xenomorphs. Do you want to control Vasquez with her powerful smart gun, or perhaps Hicks who keeps a shotgun handy for “close encounters”? You can even control Burke… if that’s your thing. In either case, expect tons of combat and dice rolling action in this scifi game.
Unmatched: Cobble and Fog (review)
The Unmatched system lets you battle with various characters from history and pop culture. Want to see Deadpool fight King Arthur? Or maybe Sherlock Holmes battle a pack of Raptors from Jurassic Park? Then Unmatched has you covered. And one of the best Unmatched games is Cobble and Fog. This one includes Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, The Invisible Man, and Dr. Jekyll. You also get a dual-sided game board to fight either in a mansion or on the streets of London. If you are looking for a light skirmish game, then the Unmatched system is a perfect place to start.
Card games come in many shapes and varieties, but they usually lack a large game board and tons of plastic pieces. This not only makes them more budget-friendly, but also a lot easier to take with you on the go.
In this living card game, each player builds a deck (or uses a premade one) of powers, allies, and resources for an iconic Marvel superhero. They’ll then team up to take on a supervillain who is not only attacks you, but is also trying to complete his scheme. There is an infinite amount of customization in Marvel Champions, and with a wealth of expansions already released, no shortage of content as well. The characters in this game also do a great job of drawing on their comic book source material as reference points, meaning that the theme goes a lot farther than skin deep.
Breakaway Football (review)
Looking for a gift for a fan of American football? Then look no further than Breakaway Football. This strategy card game drops you into the shoes of the head coach calling plays for offense and defense. Breakaway Football does an amazing job of capturing the intricacies of a football game in a streamlined package that doesn’t rely on dice rolls or complex charts. Using real football strategies, you’ll aim for “breakaways”, huge gains on offense, drive-killing sacks, and turnovers on defense. This one is a must-own for football fans.
Ever wanted to build your own amusement park? This is a card game where players are drafting cards to build their own rides and shops. Based on the Unfair card game, Funfair removes the “take that” and negative player interaction and instead creates a game where players are free to build their parks without having to worry about sabotages from other players. The goal is to earn the most money for your park by hiring staff, building attractions, and giving your park goes the coolest rides in town.
Lawyer Up (review)
Nothing says the holidays like family and/or friends throwing around words like “guilty” and “objection.” Lawyer Up, designed by Samuel Bailey and Mike Gnade, is a two-player asymmetrical card game where players take on the roles of prosecution and defense, calling witnesses and playing cards to sway the bias of jurors. Player’s build their case through arguments, evidence, and procedures, each increasing their influence through clever combinations. It’s a thematic battle that features both an art heist and murder trial, as well as several variable setups.
Two player dueling card games aren’t necessarily a new genre. But Riftforce has players starting off with a draft for various elemental powers before it becomes an all-out battle for the five locations along the rift. The game really shines after multiple playthroughs as you learn the synergies between the different elements and how to best draft to both keep powerful abilities away from your opponents and have as many as you can yourself. There’s expansion content on the way as well to increase the number of elemental powers to choose from.
Sometimes you don’t want to hunt for victory points, but instead, want a game that draws you in with its story or world. These games usually combine great production values with engaging gameplay that draws you in from the very start. If you want a game that immerses you in its world, thematic games are a perfect choice.
The expedition to the Western Lands is the kind of honor that comes once in a lifetime for a royal cartographer. But these are dangerous times. War ravages the land, and you are sure to encounter Dragul forces determined to thwart Queen Gimnax’s plans for western expansion. Fortunately, brave heroes have risen to the defense of Nalos. Chart their deeds alongside the queen’s edicts and secure your place in history. Cartographers: Heroes is the sequel to the critically acclaimed map-drawing game, Cartographers. It includes all-new map sheets, scoring cards, explore cards, heroes, and ambush cards with unique abilities. Cartographers Heroes can be played on its own or mixed with components from the original game (and our map packs) for a greater variety of gameplay possibilities.
Dune: House Secrets
Dune: House Secrets is a cooperative story-driven game where you join the resistance against House Harkonnen and experience a series of Chapters in the world of Dune. You play each Chapter through a series of encounters trying to reach specific goals. Your ability to pursue encounters is limited by time, making it impossible to experience every encounter. This limitation means that many of the mysteries within the story must be deduced.
Descent: Legends of the Dark (review)
This offshoot from Fantasy Flight Games’ Descent system takes players on a new, fully cooperative adventure. Using an integrated app and 3D terrain, players will take their hero on a quest to slay monsters, find treasure, craft weapons, and save the city from the encroaching hordes. Descent: Legends of the Dark also uses a new card and fatigue system to help make sure that there are always interesting decisions to make on your turn, and since the monsters and scenarios are run by an app, players never know what’s behind the next door.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game
The Arkham Horror Card Game is a living card game where players take on the role of investigators trying to unravel the strange happenings around Arkham. You’ll build a deck, giving yourself weapons and powers, and embark on a series of highly thematic missions. And for those looking for extra content, the way that expansion packs work has recently been updated, eschewing the confusing monthly release cycle with big box expansions. This helps make the game much more accessible for new players.
Destinies is a competitive, story driven game of exploration and adventure. Set in a dark, medieval fantasy universe, this game incorporates both an app driven narrative and also RPG-like elements as you’ll be leveling your character up over the course of the campaign. You’ll be taking your hero on a series of branching quests, trying to be the first one to fulfill their destiny!
If you are looking for games that can be played not only with family members but also non-gaming friends, then Family Games are an excellent choice. Easy-to-learn rules, friendly themes, and minimal downtime are hallmarks of the genre.
Rhino Hero Junior
Rhino Hero is a staple in many gamers collections as it quickly became one of HABA’s first “crossover titles”. And now HABA has released a version of Rhino Hero aimed specifically the toddler age range. Rhino Hero Junior, part of their “My Very First” line of games, helps children practice their fine motor skills, work on a basic understanding of numbers and quantities, and also train their memories. In addition to that, the game is simple fun and lets children build a giant tower with a rhino on top. What’s not to love!
If you are shopping for someone in the family that likes abstract strategy games and pattern matching, Mandala Stones fits the bill. It is a game of tranquility and beauty where players will be arranging colorful stones in a series of towers. Turns are easy, with a player only needing to pick a stone or score one. Yet while learning the game is simple, winning it won’t be so easy as players will all be competing for the most victory points in this great-looking game.
The Initiative (review)
This is a unique cooperative board game that not only tells a story, but also tasks players with a bit of code-breaking. It’s a campaign drive game that is broken up into short chapters, each of which begins on the page of a comic book. The gameplay in The Initiative itself is simple, yet engaging. Most involve you moving around the board, finding clues, and eventually using them to solve a puzzle at the end. The gameplay is easy enough for everyone in the family to take part in, yet even your gamer group can be entertained by this one.
The Key: Sabotage at Lucky Llama Land (review)
This real-time board game tasks players with piecing together the perpetrators of a crime and also the details of said crime. During the game, players will be quickly grabbing cards off the table, each of which offers up a tiny piece of the puzzle. These must be used to piece together the answers. Yet the winner of the game isn’t necessarily the player that solved the mystery the quickest, but the one who was the most efficient. And since the box contains 9 separate solutions, the replay value for The Key line of games is pretty excellent as well.
Families don’t always have to play cutthroat family games. But if you do want a game with a freighter full of cute and an amount of blocking on par with a 1-railcar space in Ticket to Ride, Calico is the way to go. This beautiful game has a simple, almost zen, simplicity, but the decisions are deadly. Matching colors and patterns to score points while you make a quilt and attract sleeping cats is the task here. It’s the kind of game that works well for two-player (best 2 out of 3) or as tough brain burn with your cat-loving father-in-law.
If you are looking for just a little something extra for someone on your list, then check out these Stocking Stuffers. These are great games that won’t break the bank; all under $25.
Mardi Gras Madness
Published by local New Orleans game designers, Mardi Gras Madness puts you in the crowd at a Carnival parade! Edge out your friends and collect the best set of cards showing authentic Carnival “throws.” Playful and family friendly, this Medium-Light game features unique Throw Me Something cards that give players special powers. Play casual scoring or test your strategic skill with tougher Carnival scoring. There’s even a challenging solo mode! Join the crowd and get your copy of Mardi Gras Madness in time for the holidays!
The Book of Rituals
This cooperative or solo game is fairly unique. It’s a book full of puzzles set in Board and Dice’s Escape Tales universe. Players will assume the role of discoverers of secret knowledge trying to solve the tasks the book presents. In total, 45 tasks of various formulas and types await players—from less complex puzzles to complex, multi-stage riddles. The Book of Rituals would make a great gift for the gamer that loves logic puzzles and deduction games.
Super Mega Lucky Box (review)
This quick-playing filler game is like Bingo… if Bingo were fun. Each player in Super Mega Lucky Box gets 3 cards with a grid of numbers. Then cards from a deck of numbers are drawn, one at a time, letting players cross the matching numbers off on one of their sheets. The trick is that once a row or column is completed, you get the matching bonus. This could be number change tokens, set collection moons, or even extra numbers to cross off, allowing you to chain completions across multiple cards!
There is one game that always seems to be a perennial favorite in multiple gaming households. You may first be thinking of Ticket to Ride, but Jaipur sits right up there as a two-player battle of trading which is unmatched for encouraging adaptable strategy and demanding the toughest tactics. This simple card game feels like a classic the minute you play your first game. The back and forth push and pull of camels and goods cards is easy to teach and requires constant observation of your opponent. And, being so cheap, it’s easy to throw into multiple gift piles.
The Crew: Mission Deep Sea
This cooperative trick-taking game is a spin off of the award-winning The Crew card game. Mission Deep Sea takes players from outer space to the depths of the deep sea. It uses the same core mechanics of The Crew, but adds in a few new twists of its own, especially in the way that tasks are handled. Can you and your fellow players survive the depths to complete your missions?