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Good Gift Games 2003

Note: If you heard me on The Beat and are are looking for more information on the games described, head on over to SeattleSpiel.

It's everybody's favorite holiday tradition:  Matthew Baldwin's Annual Good Gift Games Guide!

Every year I assemble a list of those games that, in my opinion, make swell presents for the holiday season.  In compiling these guides, I start with the assuption that the gift recipients are not habitual game players, so the games selected (with a few exceptions) are those with few rules and a focus on fun.  I also try and emphasize inexpensive games but, this year, I largely failed in that regard.  Oh well --  the economy's pickin' up, right?

A quick word on "complexity". I've included five  levels, here:  "No-brainer," "Simple," "Average," "Moderate" and "Advanced."  This indicates how easy the game is to learn or teach, but not necessarily how easy it is to play well.    Also, I'm grading on a curve here -- "average" does not mean "halfway between Hi-Ho Cherry-O and Dungeons and Dragons," it means "Average" in terms of a G3. All of the games listed would be suitable gifts for non-gamers (with the possible exception of Amun-Re, the one advanced game).

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, just those that came to mind as I was writing this.  If there's another game you want an opinion on, drop me a line at matthew@defectiveyeti.com -- my knowledge in these matters is frighteningly encyclopedic.  And don't confine yourself to this year's games alone: be sure to check out the G3s 2000, the G3s 2001,  and last year's guide, which also includes the Canonical List of G3games.

Enough jibba-jabba!

Coloretto (Complexity: No-brainer; Number of Players: 3-5; Playing Time: 20 minutes; Cost: $10):  You want to hear all the rules for Coloretto?  Here you go:  On your turn you can either (a) draw a card and add it to a row, or (b) take all the cards in a row.  That's it. Well, okay, maybe there's one or two other rules, but, honestly, I've hit the highlights.  And yet, it somehow manages to be terrific fun.  Go figure.

Clans (Complexity: Simple; Number of Players: 2-4; Playing Time: 30 minutes; Cost: $20):  I typically don't like abstract games, but there are two game designers who have a knack for creating abstract games that are simple, clever, brief, and contain just enough theme to win me over.  Leo Colovini is the first, and I find his Clans --   a souped-up version of Nim ostensibly about the formation of prehistoric villages -- to be unaccountably addicting.

Paris Paris (Complexity: Average; Number of Players: 2-4; Playing Time: 45 minutes; Cost: $20):  Michael Schacht is the other designer who manages to create abstract games I like-- in fact, his Web of Power is one of my all-time favorites.  Web of Power is now out of print, alas, but Paris Paris fills much the same niche:  it is easy to learn, it plays in under an hour, and it will leave you saying "let's try that  again."

Pirate's Cove (Complexity: Moderate;  Number of Players: 3-5; Playing Time: 90 minutes; Cost: $40):  Enough with the abstracts; on to the themes!  I recently bought Pirates Cove as my annual "Holiday Game," and it has been filling the role admirably.   Captain a pirate ship, send it to the four corners of the globe in search of booty, 
and greet rival corsairs with blast of cannonfire. Puts the "Arr!" into "replayable."

Mystery Rummy: Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld (Complexity: Average; Number of Players: 2-4; Playing Time: 30 minutes; Cost: $10):  This is the fourth in the "Mystery Rummy" series, and many folks think it's the best.  I harbor a slight preference for Wyatt Earp, but I like that Capone (unlike Earp) can be played as a four-person partnership game.

Queens's Necklace (Complexity: Average; Number of Players: 3-4; Playing Time: 40 minutes; Cost: $20):  Queen's Necklace is one of those rare games that's superb with three.  Set on the eve of the French Revolution, players become Royal Jewelers, vying to purchase valuable gems and trying to curry favor with the court.  And check out the well-done online tutorial.

Smarty Party (Complexity: No-brainer; Number of Players: 3-8; Playing Time: 30 minutes; Cost: $20):  Remember Outburst, that game where someone reads a category ("Parts of the body that come in pairs") and then everyone shouts out answers for 60 seconds or so?  Okay, Smarty Party = Outburst - the time limit + clever scoring system + rubber pants.  The cards contain some errors (which drives me nuts), but overall this is a very fun party game.  And I'm not kidding about the pants.

New England (Complexity: Moderate; Number of Players: 3-4; Playing Time: 90 minutes; Cost: $35):  The sleeper hit of the year.  When New England was released in German it received little acclaim, but the new English version has been garnering raves and just bagged the GAMES Magazine "Game Of The Year" award.  The heart of the game is an innovate auction system in which the amount you agree to pay for items also dictates whether you'll have the pick of the litter or have to pick through the dregs.  It's also quite nice to look at.

I'm The Boss (Complexity: Moderate; Number of Players: 4-6; Playing Time: 60 minutes; Cost: $30): I've owned the German version of this game for years, but it's been so long out of print that my friends who enjoy it (and many do) have been unable to get their own copy.  Thankfully, the game has been reissued, this time in English.  I'm The Boss is pure negotiation, as you  wheedle, beg, and coerce your opponents into collaboration on a series of business deals.

Amun-Re (Complexity: Advanced; Number of Players: 3-5; Playing Time: 90 minutes; Cost: $30):  Amun-Re has a pretty steep learning curve, but it's a game worth the effort.  Players strive to build pyramids, farm the Nile, and placate a fickle Sun God.  How Amun-Re rewards players (as a group) depends on how much they sacrifice (as a group), and it's this delicate balance between cooperation and competition that makes the game hum.

Balloon Cup & Odin's Ravens (Complexity: Average; Number of Players: 2; Playing Time: 30 minutes; Cost: $15):  Two different games with lots of similarities:  both are card games, both are for two players, both are short 'n' simple (Balloon Cup a little more so), and both are quite fun.  Most prefer Balloon Cup slightly (me, I like Odin's Ravens a smidgen more), but both are perfect for a game-playing twosome.

The Bucket King (Complexity: Simple; Number of Players: 3-6; Playing Time: 30 minutes; Cost: $20):  Why wasn't this on last year's list?  I have no idea, but it certainly should have been.   Protect your pyramid of buckets while sending farm animals out to knock over the pyramids of others.  So, yeah, the theme is stupid. But that won't prevent you from totally stressin' out when a sheep is maurading towards your bucket cache.

Other Great Games

A couple of games I'd hesitate to give as gifts but are worthy of mention.

  • Age of Steam:  Age of Steam meets none of the criteria for a Good Gift Game:  it's long (3 hours), it is expensive (40 bucks), and it's way too complex for casual gamers.  But it was my favorite of 2003, so I'd be remiss to omit it.
  • Alhambra:  Only absent from the above list because most would probably prefer to wait for the English version to be released late next year.
  • Fresh Fish: Me, I love this game, but it's certainly not for everybody.  Suitable for those who enjoy puzzles, spatial reasoning, or headaches.
  • Settlers of the Stone AgeSettlers of the Stone Age is as fine a game as any of the above, but, honestly, if you're giving gifts (or even purchasing for yourself), the original Settlers of Catan is still the way to go.   That said, Stone Age is a great substitute for Catan if you've played the latter to the point of indifference.
  • Edel, Stein & Reich:  A wonderful game but, at the moment, only available in German.

Second Opinions

Don't trust the yeti? Here's some other "best of" lists for your consideration.

  • The 2004 GAMES Magazine Games 100:
    • Game of the Year: New England
    • Best Advanced Strategy Game:  Wildlife (this is by my favorite designer and on a theme that fascinates me, but I have somehow managed to never play it. Buy it and invite me over.)
    • Best Family Game:  ZooSim
    • Best Family Strategy Game:  I'm The Boss
    • Best Card Game:  Queen's Necklace
    • Best Two-player Game:  Balloon Cup
    • Best Party Game:  Dibs (very similar to Smarty Party, listed above)
One last note. All the links in this guide point to Funagain.com, which used to be my retailer of choice (and continues to have the best website of any vendor, bar none). But I've recently begun using Game Surplus for all of my ordering, as their prices are lower and their customer service is exemplary. FYI.

Posted on December 03, 2003 to Games, Good Gift Game Guide


Yuppers. Last week I bought Settlers of Catan and Smarty Party for X-mas gifts this year. (I start shopping early, ya know).

Posted by: Ray on December 4, 2003 2:51 PM


Any chance of a quick guide to games suitable for kids? I'm not after a road test on rattles, but some games that are ok for adults and suitable for the younger. I've got two smart girls aged 10 and 8, plus a couple of younger ones who are probably out of your area of interest.

Posted by: Jim Birch on December 5, 2003 12:56 AM

Thanks for the list! I've been looking to add to our collection.

Posted by: erika on December 5, 2003 6:29 AM

Thanks for mentioning Games Surplus. I usually use Funagain. I just found out, though, that my big Christmas order, the one I placed Funagain... all the games are cheaper at Games Surplus!

Also, I looked through you're old G3s and saw the rules for Werewolf. Sounds fun! Do you still play that?

Posted by: amy on December 5, 2003 6:56 AM

Games? Not on television screens? Whut the? Stone Age indeed!

Posted by: Brodie on December 5, 2003 7:20 AM

you wouldn't happen to have a copy of the rules for Carcassonne? My parents bought the game for me in Paris - and there aren't any English directions in the box.

Posted by: ally on December 5, 2003 7:34 AM

(Google knows all, ally!) Here ya go: http://www.fwtwr.com/fwtwr/carcassonne/rules.htm

Posted by: Tim on December 5, 2003 8:05 AM

Hey Jim, some good games for kids, at least that I play with my kids are:

Galloping Pigs: Pig racing at its best. Its a light strategy game that doesn't take to long to play, has simple rules, and is engaging even for adults (ages3 and up).

Settlers of Catan: I believe this game is accessible to kids. My son at age 5 has played with us, and enjoys playing, and is as good as the adults.

Carcassonne: As a 2 player game, this game is an excellent strategy game. The more players you add, the greater the luck factor.

TransAmerica: A game where everyone builds their railway networks, trying to be the first to connect to their five cities.

Lord of the Rings (Fantasy Flight Games / Knizia): This is a co-operational game, where the players are trying to defeat the boardgame. If they need help, you can easily give it. The trick is to not direct their actions.

aMAZEing Labyrinth: Each player tries to move through an ever changing maze, seeking treasure. It certainly builds spatial awareness.

Light Speed: A quick, uber-cheap ($3) card game, that is a great filler. You place ships in real-time, then resolve how the ships fire. Its fast past card playing followed by seeing who survives the carnage.

Bohnanza: Bean farming and bean trading at its very best!

Posted by: Jeremy Friesen on December 5, 2003 9:47 AM

Jeremy, I can't believe you FIVE-year-old son played Settlers with you! Is your son's name Einstein?

Posted by: amy on December 5, 2003 10:11 AM

Jim, I second (and third) the recommendations for aMAZEing Labyrinth -- great game for kids and adults. Also, check out these "Geeklists":

Posted by: Matthew on December 5, 2003 11:55 AM


I recommend Carcassonne for ages 5 and up. Matching the tiles and placing men is fun and easy for the youngsters. The kids also enjoy Mille Bornes, it is a fun and super easy card game.


Posted by: Mike on December 5, 2003 8:03 PM

Hi Matt,

how comes it you're playing some games in German ?
Since i'm one of your frequent German readers (if there might be any other...) this gets me hooked.

Besides: "Türblitzen" would not really make it - it's more like "Drängler".

Enjoying your stuff very much !


Posted by: Olli on December 6, 2003 1:42 AM

I played Fresh Fish with my cousin (15) and uncle, and am going to get him a game as a holiday gift this year. It was going to be Fresh Fish or Settlers of Catan . . . until his mother requested a game she could play, too. She's not exactly a big strategy game player, and would hate to play either of them. Any of these a bit less strategy intensive but not a party game and not too easy for people who are good at strategy (since my cousin would also play with friends, who would like strategy games)? I have the distinct feeling I am asking for the impossible, though.

Posted by: wolfangel on December 6, 2003 6:33 AM

Wolfangel: take a look at Carcassonne or Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers. Also: Categena, TransAmerica, Royal Turf.

Posted by: Matthew on December 6, 2003 9:13 AM

Thanks. I'll look into those.

(I bought Fresh Fish on your recommendation, by the way. We all enjoy it, not least because it broke the stranglehold one of us had on always winning at Settlers. I prefer it because I prefer the spatial reasoning to trading. Though the two-person game is not ideal. I think the rules for two people need tweaking, which is my goal for Christmas.)

Posted by: wolfangel on December 6, 2003 11:24 AM

Thanks for the great suggestions, Matt. I really miss boardgames and the only time I can drag my roomate to the table to play one is if it's Scrabble. We tend to want to strangle each other over Monopoly, and she doesn't really care for Chutes and Ladders. ;)

The Capone one, Odin's Ravens, and Pirates Cove look smashing. Gotta pick them up.

Posted by: Raven on December 7, 2003 2:20 AM

Thanks all.

Posted by: Jim Birch on December 7, 2003 7:24 PM

Having played Quoridor, TransAmerica, Odin's Ravens, Carcassonne, Kahuna, Guillotine, and simplified Hera and Zeus with our eight year old daughter, her favorite game is Citadels. Go figure. We replaced the Assassin with the Tax Collector (and have the Tax Collector go before the Thief), but she likes the different characters and being able to build different buildings. She would have liked Guillotine more if it had not focused on beheading people. We turned it into the Guillotine being the doorway to a masquerade, but it fooled no one.

Posted by: Jonathan on December 8, 2003 6:49 PM

Amy, I would say that he spent a lot of time observing us play. There were also times where he was "coached" in that we would remind him to look at his hand and see what he has as well as what he wants to have. Really just reminders to think about the game.

He is certainly intelligent. He plays a mean game of Guillotine, and has for the past 2 years, even though he still can't read the cards (he can read some of it, but not certainly this is only a recent phenominon).

Posted by: Jeremy on December 12, 2003 1:30 PM

Suggestions for girls 8 to 10:


Posted by: Stockwell on December 12, 2003 2:50 PM

Matt indicates that Queen's Necklace is for 3-4 players. The box states that two can play as well.

Posted by: Chuck on December 13, 2003 9:03 AM

My brilliant! 5yr old grandson learned Mille Borne in one sitting, loves chess {you're not into chess are you, gramma}, learned the play of Puerto Rico -but not the scoring, Pay Day, and recently 5 Crowns. What shall I feed him next?

Posted by: Ann on January 13, 2004 4:34 PM