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Christmas Gift Guide 2010 (11/26/10)
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12 Boardgame Gift Ideas for 2009

Twelve Boxes for Christmas
A dozen boardgame gift ideas for 2009

By Demian Katz, Matthew Pook, Allan Sugarbaker, Mike Sugarbaker, Lee Valentine, and Andy Vetromile

2009 has been a great year for board games, and the holidays provide an excellent excuse to get folks together and try a few. For nine years now, OgreCave has offered advice on these staples of the gaming hobby, and we hope you will find the gift giving inspiration you need below. Stay away from boring gifts like Candy Land and Monopoly this year, and give one of the great games from our list below. Or better yet, ask for a few of them yourself.


Space Alert Space Alert
Rio Grande Games, $59.95

Perhaps you or a loved one suffers from a crippling addiction to Tower Defense. Help might be on the way, but it sure won't be coming from designer Vlaada Chvatil, who followed up the gird-your-loins-then-suffer thrillfest Galaxy Trucker with this insane co-op simulation of the defense of a severely overmatched little starship. Space Alert employs RoboRally-esque gameplay to prove that the tower-defense gameplay model has range and depth. Sealing the deal are the two audio CDs that time the phases and events of the game (and sometimes fuzz out, forbidding the players from talking!). For multimedia immersive experiences, you won't be finding better at a tabletop game shop this year.

Arcane Legions Arcane Legions
Wells Expeditions, $34.95/starter

This mass-combat-on-the-cheap game made a big splash amongst video gamers at PAX as well as at Gen Con, and it's indeed fast, fun, deep and supremely flexible. Starters are playable, but: want to give a gaming gift a little more on the scale of Beatles Rock Band? Ladies and gentlemen, may we suggest the complete Arcane Legions army: one starter, one cavalry box, one infantry box, and a full set of boosters (netting you one of each possible booster-bound unit), for a total of $160 or so. Now that is a set suitable for the high rollers. (Wells Expeditions are fools not to package up complete armies in one box this way, even if they can't quite get them into Best Buy alongside all the Guitar Heroism.) Plus if you have a Centurion Club membership, you can now get fully painted and assembled army boxes ($45 per), saving your giftee the sometimes-considerable hassle of de-spruing their troops.

Ad Astra box Ad Astra
Fantasy Flight Games, $59.95

Mankind has outgrown its terran birthplace and must strike out Ad Astra – "to the stars." Humanity, evolved into five subspecies, competes to reach rich new star systems and planets. New colonies offer new resources – ore, water, food – with which to expand interstellar holdings. Players take actions (trading, exploring, building, scoring) by playing cards from their deck, but these are first placed on the planning board, a sort of timeline of events. They take turns placing their cards, so they may choose where in the turn the card is executed, but once they come up, everyone takes that same action. Timing and anticipating opponents is key; if someone else can be counted on to initiate an action you want, you get more done in a turn. Should you score spaceships early in the round while you own a majority, or wait until turn's end so you can increase your fleet? With variable turns, the special abilities of alien artifacts, and a Catan-like style of play that eschews the randomness of dice, Ad Astra is never the same game twice.

Revolution Revolution!
Steve Jackson Games, $39.95

In what might be our favorite bidding game since Power Grid or Ben Hurt, Steve Jackson Games makes nefarious bribery and strongarm tactics into a thinking man's frantic strategy experience. In Revolution, you are plotting to control a town by building support from within by any means necessary. To place influence markers on the board and attempt to score locations, you must secretly exert what little power you have each turn by bidding on the townsfolk you want working for you. Certain townsfolk must be handled differently than others – the Captain is unimpressed by threats of Force, and must be Blackmailed or bribed instead; the Spy cannot be Blackmailed, as that is his speciality; and the Rogue only wants for Gold. Depending on which people you won control of in the blind bid, you get a different amount of Force, Blackmail, or Gold the next turn, and hopefully begin placing influence markers, or even switching existing markers around. The rules are very quick to learn, and entire game lasts less than an hour. Viva la Revolution!

Giants Giants
Asmodee Editions, $69.99

The Polynesian island of Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island, is famous for its moai – the great stone heads. In Giants, three to five players portray one of the fractious clans building the best monuments before the land's resources run out. Families bid to create the grandest moai, and must wisely assign workers not only to work on the statues and their decorative headdresses, but to transport them to the most coveted ahu – platforms for displaying the busts. Assisted by limited supplies of tree trunks for rolling the stones about, tribesmen form lines from the quarries to the shoreline. Whoever makes best use of his manpower gets points for the size of the moai and the quality of its resting place. Players may make use of any tribe's workers if they're willing to give points to rival factions. The clan's shaman can assist, but his bailiwick is securing additional workers or resources. These many options, plus the highly intuitive mechanics, make this strategy game entertaining, quick, and replayable.

Bombay Bombay
Ystari/Asmodee, $49.99

The cities of India are lined with silk, and as new merchants, each player is out to make their fortune buying and selling the colorful cloth. Each turn, players move their elephants around the countryside to take advantage of the silk trade's opportunities, carrying the brightly-colored bales to whichever city will offer the most rupees. Bonuses are gained from visiting the most markets, building palaces along trade routes, and garnering loyal clients. Part market manipulation, part positional strategy, this game still manages to retain its simplicity. Playable in as little as 30 minutes, Bombay is a fun, light introduction to more complex titles, though its gameplay is streamlined enough to make sure it won't be gathering dust on the shelf.

BattleTech: 25 Years cover BattleTech: 25 Years of Art & Fiction
Catalyst Game Labs; $59.99

It seems strange to think that FASA's, then WizKid's, and now Catalyst Game Lab's BattleTech game has been letting us pit giant battlemechs – walking fighting machines – against each other for a quarter of a century now. The wargame is easily expanded upon, allowing players to take their games from skirmishes between small units up to larger battles, adding new designs, more detailed rules, and even miniatures. Do not forget the setting for BattleTech, the Inner Sphere of the 31st Century is as detailed and as developed as the game itself, such that it has not only supported the game, but also one hundred novels, numerous computer games, and even a cartoon. BattleTech: 25 Years of Art & Fiction celebrates all of these and more, presenting them alongside the very best of the game's art and 18 new short stories by some of the game's best fiction authors. There's also a complete bibliography, perfect for the collector, but really this is a very attractive way in which to be introduced to the BattleTech universe and to celebrate it. (We still recommend the Classic BattleTech Intro Box Set as the best way to start playing – look back at our 2007 list write-up for the details.)

Small World box Small World
Days of Wonder; $50

Can't make up your mind on what category of game to play? We've got the game for you: Small World is one part wargame, one part resource management game, and a dash of CCG-style mechanics is thrown in, all with a fantasy-based world domination theme pasted on top. The goal is to amass victory points by controlling regions on a fantasy world map. Players control one of several fantasy races, each with a randomly determined Special Power, and dominate sections of the map each turn. But no one race can be victorious at for the entire game – manpower gets stretched thin, casualties mount – so as one race's time begins to fade, the player can elect to send it into Decline and choose a new race to add to the board. Small World is a reworking of a 1999 game (Vinci) by the same designer, Philippe Keyaerts; this time around the game is streamlined, it's a bit more chaotic, and has a great production value. How can you go wrong with a game that just won Games Magazine's "Game of the Year" title?

Aspiring conquerors would do well to read our full review of Small World.

The Stars Are Right The Stars Are Right
Steve Jackson Games, $27.95

In this game of Mythos-themed strategy, 25 double-sided tiles represent the night sky above, and if the right patterns can be found there – or created – you'll be one happy cultist. Two to four players compete to find the right patterns in the tile-grid sky, which allows them to summon otherworldly beings (from a hand of cards). By invoking the powers of the Great Old Ones and their minions (by playing cards), players will be able to manipulate the alignment of the stars – the more powerful the Mythos creature, the easier to push, pull, swap or flip sky tiles and create patterns that summon even bigger critters. Summon one of the big guys to win, and begin the task of enslaving mankind. Ultra-cute illustrations by Goomi complete the package, and make The Stars Are Right the right game to pick up this holiday.

Tales of the Arabian Nights Tales of the Arabian Nights
Z-Man Games; $59.99

In the eighties, a handful of "paragraph system" games tried to merge the best elements of gamebooks and board games. Tales of the Arabian Nights was one of the best, and a re-release has been long anticipated. The game allows players to roam the world of Arabian legend, encountering all kinds of characters and creatures, seeking magical artifacts and new skills while attempting to avoid numerous perils. The flavor of the ancient tales is captured well, and players have a lot of freedom to choose their style of play. There's a certain degree of randomness, but that just means high replay value and good stories to tell even when you lose. The new edition features a thick book that more than doubles the number of adventures available, streamlines play by replacing fiddly little counters with information-bearing cards, and (perhaps most important at holiday time) comes in a box so incredibly heavy that it's bound to impress the recipient of your gift!

Space Hulk 3rd Edition Space Hulk: Third Edition
Games Workshop, $99.95

Why Games Workshop won't simply open the manufacturing floodgates and keep an edition of Space Hulk in print is beyond us (artificial rarity is for the weak). For now, we'll have to settle for this year's limited edition release, the third edition of this massive board game, complete with its interchangable ship corridors, lumbering war-hero Space Marine figures, and skittering, death-dealing Genestealer figures. In a nutshell, Space Hulk is like Aliens with heavy ordinance and no stupid colonists to save. Two sides play through a variety of missions, with the Marines forced to follow a time limit each turn to ratchet up the anxiety level. Tracking down a copy may be tricky, but for many gamers, Space Hulk holds a perpetual place on the "must own" list – and this version would certainly be cheaper right now than collector's prices of previous incarnations. If this all-time classic of miniatures skirmish gaming doesn't get you amped up, you're just not playing it right.

Castle Panic Castle Panic
Fireside Games; $35

An enjoyable debut offering from a new game publisher, Castle Panic continues the cooperative trend of recent years. Players defend a castle at the center of the board from wave after wave of orcs and goblins by playing cards to wound monsters and rebuild damaged walls. The monsters always seem to move a little faster than you want them to, and limitations on how many cards you can trade with other players force agonizing decisions as you try to hold back the tide. While the gameplay is just as challenging as other co-ops like Shadows Over Camelot or Pandemic, the rules are a little simpler, making this a good choice for younger gamers or those nights where you feel like a game but don't feel like reading a ton of rules to get up and running.

And we're in bonus rounds once again: here's a couple more games we couldn't bear to leave off the list...

Pandemic: On the Brink Pandemic: On the Brink
Z-Man Games; $29.99

Christmas is the perfect time for a plague-ridden expansion to Pandemic, the popular cooperative game of disease eradication. The expansion adds new Roles, new Events, and some petri dishes for storing all your game components. It also adds three new modes of play: fight against a fifth mutant virus that can pop up anywhere without warning; try to eradicate a virulent disease strain that's potent and spreads like wildfire; or fight all the normal diseases while racing against time to stop a dread bioterrorist played by one of the players. Some interesting stuff here, although you shouldn't expect to fit everything easily into the original Pandemic box after you pick up this expansion.

To be properly prepared, the CDC advises that you read our full review of Pandemic: On the Brink.

Chaos in the Old World box Chaos in the Old World
Fantasy Flight Games, $59.95

With as many SKUs as Fantasy Flight puts out, it'd be weird if one or two a year weren't home runs; that said, this was a great year for game design in Minnesota, with perhaps no higher single example than Chaos in the Old World. Two to four players assume the roles of the great Chaos gods of Warhammer Fantasy, and proceed to beat on each other's followers with a mix of straight-up dice-chucking and cutthroat placement of both single-turn spells and (hopefully) persistent forces. Each god has a different way to earn victory points, and in general the game's just a delicious bouillabaisse of elements that will be familiar to board game fans but blend beautifully and originally here. We don't know of any better introduction to the tasty combo of gods that constitutes the Warhammer Chaos pantheon – and it's still a great time if you don't care about all that.

There you have it – the third of our holiday gift selection lists from 2009. Don't forget this is an annual tradition for OgreCave as well, so you can get ideas from lists of holidays past or continue looking over our other 2009 gift lists. You can feel confident that each of these items will make great gifts. That annual gift list from the newspaper's movie critic? Not so much.

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