Thursday, December 24, 2015

Games For People Who Don't Like Games

Picture it: you're home for the holidays. Everyone is sitting around staring at one another or watching the youngling / pet battle royale in the middle of the living room. Bored out of your gourd, you tentatively propose an alternate activity:

"Hey guys, does anyone want to play a game?"

All of a sudden every bit of conversation and tumult drains out of the room and you find yourself standing in the cross-hairs of a dozen perplexed looks. Momentarily taken aback, you manage to stammer out something semi-intelligible about the Santa-sized sack of games you brought with you but no-one seems to bite. As a result you lapse back into silence, go back to staring at the kid / animal mosh pit in the middle of the room and wish that you'd brought your Splendor-app-laden tablet along with you.

But, hey, you really can't blame people for this chilly reception. After all, when you mention "games" the first thing most people think about is Clue, Payday, Monopoly and Risk. Sure the classics have their place but they also involve huge dollops of luck, player elimination and/or waiting forever for your turn to come around. As such, I really can't slight the average Joe for thinking that games are about as exciting as watching a layer of skin form on the the top of the gravy bowl.

Now, if'n yer a gamer who's plannin' to spend the holidays with a bunch of non-gamers, well, don't you worry yer purdy l'il head. I'm-a gonna recommend a few specific things to bring along that'll help redefine games for neophytes while keeping you amused as well.


Dexterity games are a no-brainer. Literally, you just pick something up and you move it to another place, hoping to Sweet Baby Jesus that things don't go shit-house on your watch.

The grand-daddy, or at least the retired uncle, of this category is Jenga. I just played Jenga with my parents for the first time and it's probably gonna be the highlight of my entire Christmas vacation. Gotta love a game that you can teach to people by singing an ancient commercial jingle. Even though it's a goofy activity at best, my folks treated it like Bomb Defusing: The Board Game. It was a huge hit.

Actually they were a bit too good at it. In fact, when things were becoming super-precarious I said "Hey, this isn't right. I'm supposed to win!" As it turned out, Dad was the inevitable victor.

PROS: Super-simple to jump into. Most people know it already. Very tense. Eight people can play it.
CONS: Blocks go flying everywhere. The person who placed the last block successfully "wins".

Fun fact: Jenga is best played on a cock-themed tablecloth. 

Then there's Bamboleo which shares a lot of traits with Jenga. In this one you have a bunch of geometric shapes placed on a giant wooden platter which you tentatively balance atop a cork ball on a wooden post.

On your turn you try to take a piece off the platter without tipping the whole thing over kit and kaboodle. If your turn comes around and you don't think that you can take a piece off without knocking the whole thing over, you can pass your turn. But if the next person successfully removes a piece then you have to pay them one of your own pieces as a penalty. The ham-fisted oaf who eventually knocks the whole thing over also has to pay a four-piece penalty back to the "bank" and, as you might have guessed, whoever collects the most pieces at the end of the game wins!

PROS: Great curb appeal. It's super-simple. Suspenseful. Plays with up to seven people.
CONS: A bit tricky to set up. Shit goes flying everywhere. Your first few games will probably be over quickly until people get a hang on the whole "balance" concept.

Then there's the high-water mark of Dexterity Games: Riff Raff. I guarantee: if you set this sucker up at a Christmas party or family gathering you're gonna have people cueing up to play it. The great thing about this one is that there's actually a subtle whiff of strategy at work here.

All players start off with seven pieces of flotsam and /or jetsam as well as a small deck of cards numbered one to ten. Every turn players select a card and reveal them simultaneously. The cards determine two things: who plays first and where you have to load a piece of cargo on the ship. Any given number can only be played once per game so budget them wisely.

The ship itself is on a cardanic hinge which causes it to list in one direction if too many pieces are placed on one side. If things tumble off the ship during your watch you can try to catch them. Anything snatched out of mid-air is thrown out of the game but pieces that hit the board or the table are added to your stockpile as a penalty.

The winner is the first person who gets rid of their last piece or the person who gets rid of most of their crap after all ten cards are played out.

The strategy really comes out of the card play. For example: if the ship is badly tilting in one direction you'll want to play cards to sway things back in the opposite direction.

PROS: Looks amazing. The construction is an engineering marvel. There's actually a teensy bit of strategy. It's incredibly absorbing.
CONS: It's a bit harder to explain than the others. Only four people can play at a time.

And then there's the new kid on the block: Rhino Hero.  

Gawd, how I love Haba Games. It's like they built their entire business model on how much adults hate playing Candy Land with kids.

This one's like a combination of Jenga meets Operation. On any given turn, players built the walls of a skyscraper based on the last floor card played and then add their own. Some of these cards have special icons that screw around with the regular rules of the game. For example you could force the next player to take two turns in a row, reverse the order of play or make the next person move the titular ungulate up a level. Sure, Rhino Hero is well-intentioned but every time the fat bastard moves he threatens to send the whole thing tumbling down.

The first player to get rid of all of their roof cards wins! Conversely, if the tower collapses the person who dumped most of their roof cards wins!

PROS: Colorful. Nail-biting. Easy to play. Wins are more satisfying than Jenga. You can really screw over your opponents.

CONS: Some might struggle with the card symbols. When Aunt Mildred and Uncle Bill come barging through the front door the tower might blow over.

"Flick You, You Flickin', Flicker."

There are tons of flicking games out there but, IMHO, none do it better than Flick 'em Up.

The charming components, the western theme and the easy, programmable rules make this a real winner. The first scenario is super simple: it's just five lawmen and five desperadoes trying to ventilate one another over the course of six rounds. Each faction alternates back and forth, flicking the movement disc to maneuver their l'il wooden cowpokes around obstructing cacti, fences, hay bales, and buildings to get a clear shot at enemy varmints. If you hit an opponent with the bullet disc and knock 'em over you deal a point of damage and when someone gets hit three times they're off to Boot Hill.

PROS: Massive curb appeal. You can keep up to ten people amused at a time. Easy to play. Rules expand naturally as you keep playing.

CONS: The tsunami of bits may look intimidating to the average schmoe so be prepared to teach it quickly. Also be warned: the components are super-attractive to kids and / or pets so keep a close eye on things to avoid a festive trip to the Emergency Room.

Another solid choice is Tumblin-Dice. Each player alternates flicking, bouncing or pushing one of their four die off the top platform, trying to get their die past the foul line and keep it on the board. Wherever the die ends up the score multiplier kicks in. Naturally knocking your opponent's dice off the board, shuffle-board style, is a major part of the strategy.

Whoever has the highest total over the course of four rounds wins!

PROS: Super simple. People love the shuffle-board style game play. You can expand the number of players just by cannibalizing six-siders from other games.

CONS: This fucker is expensive.

"And By Game I Assume You Meant 'Card Game', Right?" 

Sometimes you can get certain people on board just so long as the game doesn't have a...board

Sushi Go! is a fantastic little game that takes the card drafting mechanic from 7 Wonders and distills it down to its simplest form. 

Players get "x" number of cards based on player count. Everyone picks the card they like the most, conceals it face down in front of them and then everyone reveals their picks simultaneously. The remaining cards are then passed on to the left. You rinse and repeat this action until all of the cards have been passed out, the goal being to have the best scoring tableau siting in front of you by the time the round ends.

For example, the person with the most Maki Roll symbols on all of their cards will net themselves six points with the runner up getting three. Every pair of Tempura will give you five points while a set of three Sashima gets you a whopping ten points. Dumplings stack in value so two is worth three points but four gets you ten. Nigiri are face value but if you dip 'em in a a pre-played Wasabi card you triple their value. Finally, Chopsticks give you a bonus play while Puddings are only tallied up after three rounds of play. 

PROS: Disarming sushi theme will put everyone at ease. Game play is fast and furious with no down time. Lots of scoring options.

CONS: Even though the drafting mechanic is pretty simple some people might have a hard time with it since it has no precedent. I.E. prying the remaining cards from players hands after a draft can sometimes be a real challenge.

Back in the mid-Nineties, Magic: The Gathering publishers Wizards of the Coast actually produced a line of quick and easy card games specifically advertised to help gamers cope with family gatherings. One game in particular was so good that it stood the test of time and is still in print today. And that game is Guillotine

You can sell this one by telling potential players that it's the only game in your collection that comes with a l'il cardboard Guillotine. In this one, twelve "Nobles" are lined up in front of the titular execution device. On your turn you have the ability to play an Action Card to alter the line up, which is great since the last thing you have to do on your turn is lop off the noggin of the poor jobber that's closest to the guillotine. 

Ultimately what you're trying to do is collect the heads of unpopular assholes like "The Judge" while avoiding the pates of nice people like "The Martyr". After the skulls of thirty-six random Nobles have been distributed around the table you add up your tally and the player with the most positive points wins.

PROS: The coal black humor will amuse your cool family members.
CONS: The coal black humor will horrify your prudish family members. Or is that another "PRO"? Hmmmmmmmmmmm...

Cherry Picking is a fabulous new set collection / trick taking game that borrows elements from several of the games I've already mentioned while still managing to be its own animal.

To get started you just lay out six colorful cards representing the fruit-bearing plants in the game and then pair each one up with a random card. Once again, players pick a card from their hand based on what plant they want to harvest from and then all cards are concealed and revealed at once. Then things are played out in the following order:
  • Ladders get to "cherry pick" anything on the table, but if multiple Ladders are played then all of them are chucked into their respective scoring piles and no fruit is "picked".
  • Next up are Wild Cards which also let you pick from any tree. However, if more then one of these things hits the table they're all thrown out for zero points!
  • The player who dropped the highest value fruit card plucks the card from the matching tree. If multiple people played on the same tree, then the law of diminishing returns will likely kick in! 
  • Finally, Baskets can gather up any remaining fruit card that hasn't been picked yet. This could either result in a real bargain or a giant pile of bupkis.  
At the end of the game players add up all of their face value points, matching sets, Ladder and Basket cards and whoever has the most points wins!

PROS: Colorful. Contentious. Easy to "pick" up, seewhutIdithur? The variety of card plays and point sources keeps this one "Farmers Market" fresh.
CONS: Some people might be confused by the card plays and the scoring system. We call those people "idiots". 

The final entry in this category is a game that's sure to put even the most skittish card player at ease: Diamonds.

If your audiences's enjoyment of a game is entirely predicated on seeing face values and suits, then go with this one. At it's heart, Diamonds is a simple trick-taking game like, um, Hearts. But three things make the game interesting for veteran gamers:

(1) You use a cardboard stand up screen and shiny plastic gemstones to keep score. Diamonds in your "Showroom" out front are worth face value but anything squirreled away in the back "Vault" is doubled in value. That way you have no idea who's winning until the very end!  
(2) Whenever you take a trick you activate one of four suit-based special actions involving the screen and / or the gemstones. For example, winning a heart-based trick lets you take a diamond from supply and place it in your Showroom while diamond tricks let you take a gem from the supply and place it directly in your Vault. Boo-ya! 
(3) Whenever you can't follow suit you also get a trick-taking action! *whut, whut?*   

PROS: Traditional card-game trappings makes it appear safe and familiar for scaredy-cats. Trick taking mechanic will have you cursing out opponents. The diamonds and the player screens will keep veteran gamers hooked and the winner in doubt right up to the very end.
CONS: Card snobs might think that the screens and the diamond tokens are too "gamey". As if anything could be.

"He Puzzled And Puzzled 'Till His Puzzler Was Sore."

If you're looking for something colorful, familiar and "thinky" that won't cause civilian's heads to explode like Louis Del Grande in Scanners, look no further than Blokus

This one's great: every player gets an identical set of candy-colored, Tetris-like playing pieces and then picks one of four corners to start in. The placement rules are simple: all pieces of the same color have to be placed corner to corner but pieces of a different color can be played adjacent to one another. The goal of the game is to get rid of as many of your pieces as possible.

This is a wonderful spacial relations-type game where it pays to be kinda aggro and go after your rival's corners. By rights it should be called Invasive Species: The Board Game.

PROS: Colorful, familiar and edible looking pieces. Strategic and vaguely brain-burny without a metric shit-ton of rules. Quick to play.

CONS: Limited to four players. Dumb toddlers might mistake the playing pieces for Jolly Ranchers, so unless you want a festive trip to Emerg, be warned. 

"C'mon, Baby, Daddy Just Needs To Beat Aunt Mildred!"   

If folks just want a simple Vegas-style odds-making dice game then sit 'em down for a spot of Roll For It!

The game begins when you turn up three cards at random that show what combination you're trying to roll with your six dice. For example, if there's a card that requires a "2", a "3" and a "6" for five points and I roll a "2" and a "3",  I can place the matching dice there, hoping to roll a "6" on my next turn. However, if my opponent comes along and rolls this exact combo on one throw they can capture that card, bump my dice back to me and they're on their way to the forty points required to win.  

It's so simple even a lead-poisoned chipmunk could play it.

PROS: Lotsa pretty dice, which are always fun to roll. You can split your dice up among several cards but, of course, this decreases the number of dice you roll next turn. The game plays quick and doesn't overstay it's welcome.
CONS: I'll just leave this right here.   

#rollfor it #cockstorm

Cards Against My Nerves

Cards Against Humanity sucks balls. There, I said it. It's nothing but a prefab sense of humor in a box for people born without a funny bone. Or a conscience. Mercifully there are plenty of other, considerably better games out there that involve novel concepts like wit, creativity and a modicum of intelligence.

In Snake Oil players take turns being customers. Everyone around the table has a bunch of product cards so they pair two of them together and that forms the basis of a sales pitch. For example, if I was a "Caveman" you had "Beard" and "Brush" you could put 'em together and say something like "Hey, look, dude, I didn't wanna say anything but it looks as if you've got about a week's worth of mastodon tangled up in that thing." And in response I might say "Duly noted!" 

The next person could partner up "Stone" and "Paint" together and say "Yo, Korogg, I know you ain't got no Wi-Fi in dat hobbit hole o' yours, so you prolly bored as a mother-f#cker up in dat bitch. But, check this, wif  'Stone Paint' you can exercise them creative muscles, craft yo' masterpiece, rake in tha' Benjamins and move up to a dee-lux crib in the upper east mountainside." To which I would say "Fuck you, you can't get rich with art...'Beard Brush' wins!" and give the point to the other guy. The game ends when everyone gets a chance being a Customer.

PROS: I just told you all of the rules. The selling component is surprisingly fun. The combos and the resulting pitches can be creative and unexpectedly funny.

CONS: Just like in Cards, the winner of the round is a single arbitrary pick.  

Another viable option is Say Anything. In this one players pick one of five different questions to read out loud like "What is my favorite 80's metal band?". Everyone around the table has a mark n' wipe board so they can answer the question any way they like: total creative freedom. The "judge" then picks their favorite answer by locking their choice in with a secret voting thingamajigger. Then everyone around the table has to get into the judge's head and use their two voting chips to guess what answer they picked. You can hedge your bet on two different options or double down depending on how confident they are. Points are then awarded accordingly.       

PROS: The wide choice of questions and the mark n' wipe boards really opens up the creativity. The points system makes an actual game out of it. It's a good way to get to know people around the table.

CONS:  Maybe you don't want to know everything about Aunt Mildred. 

Finally there's Word Whimsy, which allows you to build something of a creative narrative on every turn. Once again, every player takes a turn being Judgy McJudgerson, reading a random question out loud such as: "Name A Movie That I'd Probably Love". Then everyone else around the table picks out a series of subject cards and tucks them into a l'il cardboard sleeve in the order they want them read, such as "Ash", "Versus", "Kim Kardashian". 

Then all the sleeves are thrown into the middle of the table, mixed up and the judge randomly reads them out loud, awarding three points to their favorite, two points to the runner up and one point for their third choice. Naturally, the person with the most points at the end of the game wins.
PROS: You can use some, most or all of the cards at your disposal. Awarding variable points make it surprisingly good. There are tons of cards so the combinations are consistently funny, weird and varied.

CONS:  Things might get a little awkward when Uncle Bill uses "Female", "Extravaganza", "Jell-O", "Wrestling", "Vulcan" and "Nude" to answer the same question above. Ewwwww.

Anyway, that's just a few quick ideas offa the top o' my head. The thing to remember when picking out a game is:
  1. How many people are playing? Make sure that you have games at your disposal that can accommodate four, six, eight or even ten bodies at a time.
  2. Know your audience. If Aunt Mildred gives out prayer beads as Christmas presents every year it's highly unlikely that she'll appreciate the finer points of Epic Spell Wars
  3. Curb appeal is important. Make sure the components are kept to a bare minimum and they're attractive to look at and maul.
  4. Play time should never drag. Anything longer than an hour is really pushing your luck.
  5. Reading rules verbatim out a manual will drive people away quicker than an invite to peel potatoes for Christmas dinner.
Determined to lure folks away from their smartphones, tablets, T.V. screens and monitors for more than ten minutes?  Then click on the images below to learn more about these games and, in turn, wish this blog a Happy and Prosperous New Year!