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  • Writer's pictureThomas Cardwell

Last-Minute Game Gift Guide

Supply-chain issues got you down?

Feeling pigeonholed into not making cheesecake?

Using either of those as excuses for why you, for the eighth year in a row, have embarked on a days-before-Christmas frenzy to check gifts off your list?

You're not a cotton-headed ninny muggins.

I've got 'ya covered.

What follows is a list of eleven games from established publishers (meaning more likely to be on your local game store, mega-mart, or internet shelves if you are last-minute shopping). I start on the simpler side and build up to more complex games. There's a little something for everyone on this list—cooperative games, adventure games, team games, word games, pirates, sci-fi, monsters, sushi, and ceramic tiles (oh my?). I have played all of these games multiple times and think they're all great fun!

Show Me the Games

Here's the list—I checked it twice! Keep scrolling for more in-depth descriptions of each.

  • Playing cards: variable player count, classic, broad appeal

  • Bananagrams: 2-8 players, word game, hectic, short rounds

  • The Crew: 3-5 players, cooperative, variable length

  • Codenames: 4-10 players, word association, competitive teams

  • Sushi Go!: 3-5 players, cute, simple card game

  • Patchwork: 2 players, strategy, tile placement, quilt-themed

  • Azul: 2-4 players, strategy, tile placement, artistic

  • Tortuga 1667: 5-9 players, teams, pirates, hidden-identity

  • Betrayal at the House on the Hill: 3-6 players, spooky, exploration, cooperative/lopsided

  • Clank!: 2-4 players, fantasy, adventure, deck-builder

  • Terraforming Mars: 2-4 players, strategy, sci-fi, resource growth

Note: player counts on the list may be different than what you'll see on the box—these numbers are what I think is best for the game.


A standard, plain-ol' deck of cards — !!! players, !!! hrs

It's hard to beat a deck of cards in terms of universal appeal. There are some pretty sweet themed cards out there for travel buffs, superhero fans, and everything in between (or just nab some classics as stocking-stuffers), and there are so many games you can play with them. Ask family or friends what card games they know and dive into some Spades, Spoons, Rummy, etc., then show off some solo card games (like The Cabin by the Sea) for holiday flights home.

Bananagrams — 2-8 players, 5 mins per round


A simple and fast word game, Bananagrams has players race to make words out of tiles with letters on them. Each time someone finishes putting all of their current tiles into words, they shout "Peel!" and everyone has to draw a new letter to fit into their personal scrabble-like grid. Also, setup could not be more simple; just unzip the banana and pass out some letter tiles. This is another one that often goes multiple rounds as folks want more, and the simultaneous play makes this one fast and hectic (in a good way).

The Crew — 3-5 players, 10 mins per round

A top-down shot onto a black metal coffee table. At center, The Crew: Mission Deep Sea box is on a green crocheted stocking. A blue card with 1, and pink card with 6 are on the left. Various communication tokens are strewn throughout the frame.

If you like trick-taking card games like Hearts or Spades, this game might be for you. The Crew is a cooperative trick-taking card game with a mission to space (or deep sea) where players must cooperate to complete various tasks that help the crew arrive at their destination. Each round, players will be dealt cards and a new objective will be described: players must take tricks in a specific order, one player must take a trick with the lowest card value, etc. The game rounds are concise enough that your crew can play a few rounds for a quick foray or spend a whole evening trying to complete as many objectives as possible.

Codenames — 4-10 players, 20 mins

A team-based word-association game, Codenames has one player from each team give hints for their team's secret words (a subset of words from the visible grid of cards). Lead your team to guess as many words as possible per round without leading them toward the opponent's words or the bomb—the automatic loss card. First team to guess all of their words wins! This one is great for variable numbers of players; it handles fluctuating player counts well (even mid-round). It's a crowd favorite!

Sushi Go! — 3-5 players, 20 mins

Like cutesy sushi? This is an adorable drafting game where each turn players receive a hand of cards, select one card to play, and pass the remaining cards. Each player is trying to earn the most points by playing sets of the same cards (tempura, sashimi, dumplings), having the most of a particular card (maki rolls), or playing multiplier cards (wasabi) on pure point cards (nigiri). The player with the highest score after three rounds is the victor—but don't forget dessert!—the player with the most pudding cards across all three rounds gets a bonus while the player with the fewest receives a penalty. Another quick game that is small with easy setup, folks often want extra helpings of Sushi Go.

Patchwork — 2 players, 30 mins

One of my personal favorites, Patchwork is an excellent two-player strategy game about quilting. Players pick from a variety of differently-shaped pieces to place into their quilt grid, but each piece requires a certain amount of sewing time (represented by your position on the board) and a number of buttons (every quilter's currency). I especially like the spatial puzzle of the quilt tile placement, but there are also elements of engine-building (to gain more button resources as the game progresses) and resource denial (snatching up the perfect patch for your opponent's quilt). There's something for everyone and the rules/setup are straightforward for first-time quilters.

Azul — 2-4 players, 40 mins

A gorgeous game of tile placement. Players take turns selecting randomized tiles from groups in the center, trying to fill their personal boards with sets of patterned tiles to gain points (and bonuses) depending on their placement. Play ends when one person has a full row completed on their board. It is an approachable strategy game, with some fun player interaction between fellow mosaic builders.

Tortuga 1667 — 5-9 players, 45-90 mins

Tortuga is a hidden identity game in which everyone is a pirate with a secret loyalty to the British, the French, or the Dutch (Dutch included only if there's an odd player count). Players can move between two ships and the island of Tortuga, and attack the Spanish Galleon alongside pirates of questionable loyalty to plunder gold on behalf of their monarch. Declare mutiny on your captain, covertly sabotage cannons, and use event cards to gain advantages against your presumed opponents—watch out for the extra-wild events that force players to take actions such as swapping loyalty mid-game. The arrival of the Spanish Armada triggers the end of the game; loyalties are revealed and the team that secured the most booty for their crown wins (the Dutch win if there's a tie between the British and the French). I especially like this one if you have an odd number of players, as the inclusion of the Dutch fans the flames of subterfuge.

Betrayal at the House on the Hill — 3-6 players, 1.5 hrs

If all you want to do this holiday season is cozy up in a cursed mansion and have someone near and dear to you turn into a monster, Betrayal is for you! The game starts with players cooperatively exploring a spooky mansion, and takes a turn halfway through at The Haunt—one afflicted player is transformed into a monster and uses their newfound powers to try and eliminate all other players. This game has good replay value thanks to a variety of monsters and unique exploration via randomized tiles that are revealed as you stumble into creepy courtyards and cobwebbed cellars .

Clank! — 2-4 players, 1.5 hrs

In Clank!, players delve into the dungeon of a dragon to steal its treasures and strive to live to tell the tale. It is a deck-building game, meaning players progressively make their turns (hopefully) more powerful by adding better cards to their deck to gain movement, attack, and buying power. Dare to plunge deeper into The Depths to pilfer high-value treasure, but beware—the dragon's anger grows as you noisily Clank! your way through her lair, attempting to escape with the most extravagant haul. This one is worth it just for the satirical card spoofs of fantasy characters and tropes, but is also an excellent deck-building adventure game. There's also a sci-fi version (Clank! In! Space!) that is wonderfully themed and has some apt card and movement tweaks (Teleporters! In! Space!).

Terraforming Mars — 2-4 players, 2.5 hrs

Know someone who is into strategy, sci-fi, and is down for an evening-long game? Terraforming Mars is a great game that checks all three boxes. Each player plays a corporation vying to turn Mars into a habitable planet for humans while building their production of various resources over time. There are a variety of ways to score points: increasing the oxygen concentration, adding oceans, building forests, bringing pets to Mars, etc. This game can be long and there's a lot going on, but it's not all that complicated—just give the rules a skim and try to get going with the starter corporations. Players only play two actions on their turn (like "Space Mirrors"), so even if the total game goes long, each player will take a turn fairly often. Bust out your Mega Credits and invest in humanity like the good corporation you are.


Games for the holidays are an excellent excuse to gather round and compete or cooperate with family, get upset with folks over something removed from real life (or maybe not so far removed—see your therapist for more info), or just pass the time while avoiding spicy topics like "so what are you doing with your life, anyway?", "how many years of school do you have left again?" and "look at this cute baby toy we got you; it'd be cuter if you had kids."

Hopefully this helps for your last minute gifts; let me know if you enjoy some of these games with loved ones this Christmas season.

Until next time,


Games of the week: Bananagrams, Codenames - both on this list already; but these are both great quick games to bust out with pretty much anyone (including neighbors and in-laws, as was the case this week).

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