Gift ideas for the board-game fan on your list

Some might ask: In these times of tribulation and uncertainty, when economic and political systems seem poised to collapse all around us at any moment, how can you think about board games?

And I reply, how can you not?

If you're a member of the fabled 99 percent -- which is, if nothing else, statistically probable on the face of it -- board games can be a welcome source of solace and satisfaction, in addition to offering plenty of geometrical territories to occupy. Once again, we offer a guided tour through some of the year's new game offerings.

Family games

"Flip Out" (Gamewright, $19.99; 2-5 players; age 8+; 15 min.) The simplicity and purity of this colorful card game make it a perfect entertainment for young and old alike. The equipment consists of cards, brightly colored on both sides, that sit before each player on a rack; you can see one side of your cards and everyone else can see the other. Then you take turns switching and swapping, trying to assemble groups of similarly colored cards. There's no deep strategy involved, and very little planning -- just lighthearted, satisfying fun.

"Haggis" (Indie, $14.95; 2-3 players; age 13+; 45 min.) This splendid card game is in the tradition of "climbing games," in which sets of cards have to be played that are equal to or higher-ranking than what's been played so far ("Tichu" is another popular example). "Haggis," created by Sean Ross, boasts elegant design, crystal-clear rules and enough strategic subtlety to reward repeated play, all without putting it beyond the reach of a canny preteen. And it accommodates either two or three players, producing a qualitatively different game either way.

"Gubs" (Gamewright, $11.99; 2-6 players; age 10+; 20 min.) This ebulliently quirky card game walks right up to the line where whimsy becomes too much -- and then wisely stops. Gubs are biomorphic cartoon critters who appear on the cards in your hand, can be played on the table in front of you and then have to be protected from various perils -- cyclones, wasps and, um, the Gargok Plague -- in order to score. Success seems to depend a bit too much on a player's familiarity with the range of cards in the deck, but the game does help half an hour or so pass pleasantly enough.

"Ranking" (Rio Grande, $39.95; 3-5 players; age 13+; 30-45 min.) Infuse an "Apples to Apples"-style party game with just a hint of strategy and this is the result. Players get dealt a hand of tiles with cartoon drawings, then try to select the one that will rank highest in response to a question such as "Which smells better?" or "Which would small children find more interesting?" A tricky sorting mechanism ensues, in which you attempt to bump your candidate to the top of the pile without being too obvious about it. A good candidate for all-family play.

"Shake 'n Take" (Out of the Box, $27.99; 2-10 players; age 8+; 20-30 min.) A game aimed this directly at young children can sometimes compel adult testers just to guess about how effective the gameplay is likely to be. The goal here is simple -- be the first to circle all the cartoon aliens on your card -- but time is short, because within seconds the next player can grab the pen out of your hand. It's a moderately enjoyable speed test; the question, I guess, is how long kids can play a game in which grabbing stuff from your opponent is the key to winning.

"Swivel" (Patch, $19.99; 2-4 players; age 8+; 10-15 min.);

"Oversight" (Griddly, $24.95; 2-4 players; age 7+; 10-15 min.) Both of these games offer similar twists on the classic four-in-a-row checker game. In "Swivel," players place colored pieces on an 8-by-8 grid in which some sections can be rotated; in "Oversight's" 7-by-7 grid, every other row and column can be shifted one space. The upshot is largely the same, as your usual strategic plans to place four consecutive pieces are complicated in mildly interesting ways. Of the two, "Oversight's" wrinkle is slightly more compelling (at least with four players), but it also has an obnoxious design, with colors that are intended to confuse you.

"Discworld Ankh-Morpork" (Mayfair, $48.99; 2-4 players; age 11+; 60 min.) This fantasy game based on Terry Pratchett's books is so intricately and lovingly designed, with an ornate board and beautiful, detailed playing cards, that it's a shame it isn't more fun to play. The cards drive the action, with turns mostly consisting of following the elaborate instructions printed on them. The result isn't unpleasant, exactly, but it's all too random and whimsical to either plan or to take much interest in where the flow of the game is going.

"Knock Your Blocks Off" (Gamewright, $16.99; 2-4 players; age 8+; 15 min.) The box promises lessons in pattern recognition and hand-eye coordination, but I suspect that's wishful thinking. Basically, this is an excuse for throwing blocks around.

Party games

"The Resistance" (Indie, $19.95; 5-10 players; age 13+; 30 min.) This magnificent game of deduction

and deception isn't your usual party fare, but for anyone with a taste for brain teasers, it's utterly indispensable. (It almost derailed the completion of this article, because we kept cutting our testing sessions short to squeeze in another round or two.) "The Resistance" is a variant on a game many know as "Mafia" or "Werewolf," in which players are secretly divided into two teams -- in this case the valorous Resistance and the subversive Spies -- and try to smoke each other out. What sets it apart is that the teams are pursuing a concrete task, respectively trying to complete or undermine secret missions. So players have concrete information for their deliberations, and (unlike in "Mafia") everyone stays in the game until the end. Granted, those who don't like "Mafia" won't like this much better, but for those who do, it makes a good game into something great.

"Six-Word Memoirs" (University, $17.99; 2-8 players; age 12+; 30 min.) This is a nice, uncomplicated "Password"-style offering that involves clueing a series of items using six words -- no more, no less. The answers are grouped into "People," "Places" and "Things," and these categories turn out to differ widely in difficulty (Lisbon, for example, can be clued as "Portuguese capital," with four words left over for wisecracks, whereas many of the names are much tougher). As with most commercially packaged party games, you could easily play this on your own without spending a dime, but it's helpful to have hundreds of target words ready to hand.

"Letter Rip" (University, $19.99; 2+ players; age 8+; 30 min.) No game this year got a more polarized response from my crowd than this celebrity-based party game. It's a simple matter of rolling a bunch of letter-bearing dice, then pairing the results and trying to think of a famous person with each pair of initials. "JM" is easy, "VU" not so much; but the real divide is between people who tear into something like this and those who sigh and say, "Yeah, I'm not very good with names." For a group of the first type, "Letter Rip" is splendid entertainment.

"Zero" (University, $29.99; 2+ players; age 12+; 30 min.) The premise here is essentially "Family Feud" turned on its head. The creators asked 450 people to name members of particular categories, then tallied their results. The goal for players is to pick the least popular answers, which can sometimes be mind-bending. Unfortunately, the game board is weirdly unbalanced, and the questions vary in quality.

"Rollick" (The Game Chef, $24.99; 6+ players; age 12+; 20-30 min.) This is charades with a twist, and the twist is that instead of one person clueing for many guessers, it's the other way around -- not unlike group improv. That's the whole story. Buying the game will get you many hundreds of clueable words, which, frankly, could probably be used for a number of similar party games if you wish.

"Faux-Cabulary" (Out of the Box, $29.99; 3-7 players; age 13+; 30 min.) This is the most promising-looking, and most disappointing, fail of the year. The game comes with cubes bearing word segments like "uber," "teen" and "ific," as well as a deck of cards with definitions for invented words, and players use their cubes to try to create a whimsical word matching the definition. Unfortunately, the cubes are too limiting to allow for real inventiveness, and the results are nearly all near-misses. What's most disappointing is that the definition cards are terrific, with things like "the inability to get any work done the day before you leave for vacation" or "the fluid produced by cooking clams." I know there's a superb game waiting to be invented using those in some way.

Strategy games

"Risk Legacy" (Hasbro, $54.99; 3-5 players; age 13+; 60-90 min.) Every year Hasbro tries to add a wrinkle to a classic game to get us to revisit pastimes of our youth. This year they've finally done it, in spades. "Risk Legacy" starts out very close to the familiar old game of world domination, but each time you play it, things go further afield. The geography of the board changes; armies get new weapons and defensive weaknesses; players who won earlier games acquire special advantages. And all of these changes are cumulative and permanent -- most of them involve affixing stickers to the board or writing on it in pen -- so that by the third or fourth game, the landscape is completely altered. A bit of the old "Risk" stodginess lingers, but the added elements of surprise and variation offer plenty of compensation.

"Automobile" (Mayfair, $49.99; 3-5 players; age 13+; 120 min.) Martin Wallace's game conjures up the early years of the auto industry in elaborate, loving detail. To make it big as a car tycoon means balancing a wealth of competing business considerations -- the costs of production, the depreciation of your factory, the demands of the market (which can be affected by either a salaried sales force or advertising, or both) and so on. The one drawback, perhaps, is that the game can seem

too realistic at times; at least, it's best suited for those who can do quick profit-and-loss calculations on the fly. But anyone will appreciate the game's ingenuity and beautiful design.

"Cargo Noir" (Days of Wonder, $49.99; 2-5 players; age 8+; 30-90 min.) Who doesn't dream of a career, even a brief one, as an international smuggler? This crisp, relatively uncomplicated game -- designed with cartoonish flair -- offers that opportunity. Players send their ships to seedy docksides in Rotterdam, Cape Town or Panama in an attempt to garner contraband (gold, jewels, ivory). If you assemble a mass of the same type of goods, or a diversified holding, you can trade it in for victory points. The play mechanics are straightforward enough to dive right in, but deep enough to reward repeated play.

"Pantheon" (Rio Grande, $39.95; 2-4 players; age 13+; 60-90 min.) It's always good to have a new game of world domination to tackle, and this broad-beamed game -- themed as the conflict among the deities of ancient civilizations -- fills the bill perfectly. The game is played on a map of the ancient Mediterranean and unfolds over six epochs, each one dominated by a randomly selected civilization. Players fan out from the dominant capital in an attempt to establish a presence, while supplicating and enjoying the patronage of the relevant gods. The play is not without complications, but it all works together in the end.

"Battleship Galaxies" (Hasbro, $64.99; 2-4 players; age 13+; 60-90 min.) The "Battleship" DNA survives just a bit here, in that spaceship wars are settled by firing at an 8-by-10 grid of your target vessel and yielding either a "hit" or a "miss." Otherwise, this is a pretty solid battle game, played with plastic replicas of various military spacecraft and weaponry. Two players can go head-to-head just trying to wipe each other out, or other game scenarios are available involving three or four players. Supplying your own sound effects helps a bit.

"The Rivals for Catan" (Mayfair, $20.00; 2 players; age 10+; 45-60 min.);

"The Struggle for Catan" (Mayfair, $16.99; 2-4 players; age 8+; 30 min.) The spate of "Settlers of Catan" reductions continues unabated with these two card-based versions of the original classic. Most of the familiar game elements are here, including the canonical five resource types and the goal of building up roads, settlements and cities, but each offers a more compact, stripped-down approach. Of the two, "The Rivals for Catan" -- a two-player version that substitutes a card tableau for the original island layout -- is far superior; there's enough competition to replicate some of the original allure. The gimmick in "The Struggle for Catan" is that roads and settlements are limited and can be stolen from other players, but that only means that cards keep circulating tiresomely around the table until one player breaks through to victory.

"Small World Underground" (Days of Wonder, $49.99; 2-5 players; age 8+; 30-90 min.) Like "Ticket to Ride" before it, "Small World" is a fine game that is starting to spawn a potentially embarrassing spate of not-very-different spin-offs. Like the original, this new version features various races of fantasy creatures competing for space on a too-crowded board; the small difference this time is that the geography is subterranean, with a river complicating things along with the presence of monsters. It's a nice wrinkle if you feel sated with the original "Small World," I suppose, but it doesn't expand on it enough to make it quite worth the investment.

"32 Dice" (Front Porch, $24.99; 2 players; age 8+; 30 min.) There's a nice basic concept lurking here that doesn't provide as much satisfaction as it should. The setup is a chessboard, but instead of chessmen, each player begins with 16 randomly thrown dice. Each die can move the number of squares shown on its upper face, or you can spend a turn to change it to a different number; the goal is to get one die onto your opponent's back row. In theory, this is a nifty blend of chess technique and a little random fluidity. Unfortunately, it plays to the same skills as chess (which is why I stink at it) -- and if you can play chess well, wouldn't you rather be doing that?

"The Heavens of Olympus" (Rio Grande, $44.95; 3-5 players; age 13+; 60-90 min.) If nothing else, this is a good example of how thoroughly a set of badly written rules can sink a decent game. The game involves placing discs (planets) on a mesh of interlocking spaces (the heavens) to form various point-scoring patterns, and the play itself seems to be basically sound. But the rules are so confusing, and so littered with extraneous flavoring about Zeus and other gods, that it's nearly impossible to get a grasp on it.

Heartfelt thanks to my fellow test players: Lee Abuabara, Joanna Bresee, Andrew Chaikin, Girts Folkmanis, Taylor Glenn, Debbie Goldstein, Seth Golub, Adam Gousetis, Jeff Haas, Robert Harris, Tyler Hinman, Brenda Larcom, Josh Levenberg, Becca Middleton,

Vynce Montgomery, Rick Rubenstein, Effie Seiberg, Lore Sjoberg, Eric Uhrhane, Sarah Uttermann-Merritt, Zoe Van Hoover, Robynne Winchester, Ka-Ping Yee, Colette Zelwer.

-- Joshua Kosman

Where to buy

Most games are available online at or other retailers. A wealth of information can also be found at the aptly named

But first try an independent game store. Expert advice can be indispensable, and the fine folks who work at these establishments don't seem to do much but play games and form opinions about them. They can guide you to whatever you're looking for.

(Email Joshua Kosman at

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

Courtesy: San Francisco Chronicle

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