The holiday season is the perfect time to catch up with aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins, and all of those in-laws you don't see very often. You'll probably spend the better part of dinner catching up on what everyone has been up to. But after the small talk dies down, you may find yourself fumbling for entertainment.
Fight the urge to zone out in front of the TV and pull out one of these board games instead. Each one is sure to help you create new family memories and get your competitive juices flowing. At the end of the visit, when Grandma has built her empire and left the entire family depleted of resources, or Little Timmy has shown his solid grasp of capitalism, you may have a new understanding of these people you call family. And that's one more thing you'll all have to talk about at the next get-together.
Here are a few of our favorites:
If you have all day: Star Wars: Rebellion
Looking for a way to kill some serious time? This is the game for you. Even the box warns that the time commitment for this game is three to four hours, but many reviewers found that this is probably a gross underestimation. "Just learning the rules can take up to two hours, and play can easily spill into the five-hour territory," noted game reviewer William Herkewitz in his review of the game for Popular Mechanics. It would take several posts just to fully explain how this game is played, but I'll sum it up like this: You're either a Rebel or Commander of the Galactic Empire and you take turns sending your troops on missions to gain control of the map with the ultimate goal of destroying either the Rebel base or the Imperial Army.
If you only have an hour: Ethnos
On the opposite end of the time spectrum, Ethnos is the perfect game for those who only have an hour or so but still want to have a little fantasy fun. Ethnos is fast-paced because each player has only two choices: pick a card or play a set. So that means you won't get bored to death waiting for someone to make a move. The object of the game is to collect and play cards in sets, and each time you play a set you gain control of a piece of the board. Simple and fast but deceptively fun.
If you have a potty mouth: Cards against Humanity
Cards Against Humanity is not so much about competition as it is about uproarious laughter as you vie to make the most outrageous card combinations possible. If you don't already know, this NSFW game is NOT appropriate for little kids or for relatives who embarrass easily. But it's perfect for adults who like to tell dirty jokes that would make a sailor blush. In other words, wait until the kids go to bed and Grandma and Grandpa head home for the night, then bust out this game with your fellow familial deviants and get ready to have some fun.
If you're into science: Evolution
As you might have guessed, the object of Evolution is survival. To make that happen, players compete to create their own species by choosing from features such as a long neck to access more food or a hard shell to protect it from predators. With something like 4,000 possible species combinations, this is a game that keeps the whole family entertained for rounds and rounds of play. Melinda Cool of Ferndale, Washington, says she loves playing this game with her husband and two teenage boys. The Cool family is particularly fond of the Climate Edition expansion pack that forces players to add the "ever-changing and unforgiving" climate into consideration when creating their species.
If you're Muggles: Harry Potter and the Mystery at Hogwarts
Hogwarts fans, if you haven't already discovered this one, it could be your new favorite board game. This one comes on a recommendation from Kira Newman, from Harrisonburg, Virginia, who plays this along with her husband and Potter-obsessed teen daughters. It's a Clue-like game that swaps out Professor Plum for Professor McGonagall, murder weapons for spells, and the traditional library for rooms in the Hogwarts castle. But there are also additional features such as secret passages, a roaming poltergeist and custom rolls of the die that allow players to get a sneak peek at their opponents' cards.
If you're into trains: Ticket to Ride
Based on the novel "Around the World in 80 Days" by Jules Verne, the classic version of Ticket to Ride is a game that challenges players to embark on a journey across North America in a winner-takes-all cross-country competition. In our house, the European version of the game is a big hit with my tween and teen. The idea is the same: players must collect cards that allow them to buy routes across Europe, only in this version it's the player with the most lucrative routes who wins the game. With route combinations that are always changing, Ticket to Ride is an easy-to-learn and fun-to-play crowd-pleaser.
If you want to please everyone: Monopoly
While everyone is out searching for the latest and greatest new game to play this holiday season, why don't you dig down to the bottom of your game cupboard and pull out that dusty old classic, Monopoly. No, I don't mean Baconopoly, or Walking Deadopoly, or any of the other zillion -opoly versions to hit store shelves. I'm talking about good old Monopoly with its top hat, its Boardwalk and its "Get Out of Jail Free" card. Monopoly has been around since 1935, which means that your Uncle Albert has not only heard of it, he's probably played it at least once in his life. Not having to explain the rules to everyone at the table is worth its weight in gold. And it's great for younger kids, too — as long as they aren't so young that they might choke on the pieces — because there are a limited number of choices for each turn. Easy to remember, easy to learn, and it's probably already in your house. Just try not to get into any heated disputes over this game, OK?
If you just want to laugh: Exploding Kittens
Love kittens? How about exploding kittens? My cat-loving kids were a little skeptical of a game that revolves around getting killed by exploding cats, but the irreverent premise and silly sketches won them over pretty quickly. Because who wouldn't want to attack another player by deploying the "Thousand-Year Back Hair?" or skip their turn by donning a "Portable Cheetah Butt"? Yeah, it's ridiculous, but if light-hearted competition is what you're after, this is the game for you.
If you have a steady hand: Suspend
Jenga fans will love this simple yet exciting balancing act of a game in which players build upon one another's pieces (instead of taking them away à la Jenga.) There are no real rules to learn or objectives to accomplish. You just roll the die and if you have a piece of that color, you have to hang it somewhere from the structure. With each new addition, the arrangement shifts and everything changes. It's a good one for all ages, although steady hands are a must. And if you're feeling anti-social, Suspend is one of the few games (other than Solitaire) that you can play by yourself.
If you want something new: Gloomhaven
For those who want a serious Dungeons & Dragons-style board game to immerse themselves in over the holiday break, Gloomhaven might just be a perfect fit. The game is heavy — and I don't just mean that it's intense — although it's that too. I mean, it's physically heavy, weighing in at 22 pounds, so make sure you have room in your suitcase if you plan to bring this one along. Similar to a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book, the objectives and motives in Gloomhaven constantly change as players choose different scenarios. As if that isn't enough to shake things up, each player is also required to switch characters periodically throughout the game, taking on new roles and learning new skill sets along the way.
If you don't have a lot of space: Mint Works
Looking for a game that's light — both in its weight and its intensity? Give Mint Works a try. The entire game — cards, mints and rule book — fit within a container the size of an Altoids tin. That means this game is easy to tote around and perfect for those traveling over the holidays. It's also simple to play, but don't let it fool you. There's plenty of strategy involved if you want to win the game. Players must purchase and manipulate cards to accumulate points while constantly deciding whether to cash in for more points early in the game or hold on to their loot to build their economy. Not bad for a game that fits in your pocket.