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I belong to a gaming family. Throughout my childhood, my parents, my brother, and I would play a lot of cribbage and Uno on camping trips, and epic games of Risk over the holidays. Later, I married a woman who grew up in a similar household, and I bonded with her folks over dominoes, Rummikub, and Phase 10. With my own kids, a lot of our shared jokes and fondest memories have come from sitting around the dining room table, trying to outwit one another.
So when I gathered my list of the 40 Greatest Family Games for Slate two years ago, I didn’t need to do much research. In our home, we have games stacked up on nearly every unused surface: card games, dice games, tile-laying games, and board games—the whole range of what’s known as “tabletop” gaming.
One of the goals of that piece was to encourage people to stop playing the boring, frustrating, and clumsily designed old games like Monopoly and Clue, and to instead explore the wonders of new classics like Splendor and Castles of Mad King Ludwig. These newer games are often more cleverly and thoughtfully designed to make the gameplay more challenging, exciting, and fair.
Since then, inventors have only continued to release great new creative games, and I’ve kept mental track over the years of what’s worthy of a place in my Greatest Games list. I always get some ideas when the Oscars for tabletop games—the German “Spiel des Jahres”—are announced. In fact, it’s that competition that led my family to Wingspan: one of my new all-time favorites and the 2019 winner in the Spiel de Jahres’ “connoisseur” category for complex games.
Wingspan has been a sensation among tabletop buffs since its release. As outlined in a New York Times profile last year, Wingspan creator Elizabeth Hargrave was inspired by her bird-watching hobby to design a game that would allow people to appreciate the diversity and the remarkable abilities of birds. She’s done so—beautifully—by creating a game whose ultimate goal is for players to establish their own bird habitats, by gathering and then deploying the right combinations of food tokens, eggs, and bird cards.
Like many of what are sometimes called “engine-building” games (like Terraforming Mars or Race for the Galaxy), Wingspan is largely about collecting the right cards and then playing them in ways that either generate the most points toward winning or produce the most resources toward improving the player’s position. While I love the strategy involved in engine-building games, I also love that since Hargrave included more than 170 birds in the original game (plus 81 more in a new European expansion and future expansions on the way), each game of Wingspan is a little different. Players can’t assume which birds they will be dealt. You can play six games in a row and never see a ring-billed gull or a double-crested cormorant.
Because of that, collecting these rare birds sparks a special kind of joy … perhaps akin to how real birders feel when they’re out in the wild with their binoculars and their notebooks. It’s not necessary to know anything at all about birds to play the game. The bird cards tell players everything they need to know about where the birds go and what they eat. And managing the lives of these little critters—putting them in their right place, giving them what they need—is a bit like managing the actual environment but on a smaller scale. You have to plan carefully and think everything through, or else you won’t be able to get all of these lovely creatures into a good nest. It feels good to get them settled, whether or not you ultimately win.
There are other pleasures to Wingspan. The game delights the senses, for one. The cards are colorful and beautifully rendered, with informative factoids scrawled on each. The tiny wooden eggs have a satisfying heft. The sound of dice rolling through the game’s special birdhouse dispenser is a treat for the ears.
But perhaps most importantly, each game of Wingspan is like a little puzzle, which players have to solve for themselves. Every action—drawing cards, gathering food, collecting eggs, placing birds—takes up a single turn, and there are only a set number of turns in each round. By the end of the fourth and final round, the game becomes surprisingly intense.
Unlike games where you have to hope for a good roll of the dice or a lucky turn of the cards to get an edge, in Wingspan, nearly all of the resources necessary for success are available to all players, always. It’s time that’s scarce. Every move you make edges you closer to the finish.
This is one of the fundamental appeals of gaming, beyond the fellowship and wisecracks. As in life, there’s only a set amount of time to make a plan and execute it well—to make the most of every fleeting moment.
In search of more games this holiday season? Here are five more that we play obsessively in my house:
This tile-laying game is a little like Scrabble, except instead of making words, you’re matching intricate abstract patterns. Several games exist in this genre (including two other favorites in my home, Iota and Qwirkle), where the goal is to place compatible squares next to one another to maximize points, but Azul and its spinoff games have the advantage in that they’re visually stunning. Azul is also easy to learn but difficult to win. Players will need a mix of logic, planning, and a gambler’s nerves to fill their individual grids.
Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings and Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield collaborated on this clever and unusually egalitarian variation on a trivia game, in which knowing things is helpful but not essential. Each question in the box has three right answers and three wrong ones. Players bet chips on those answers—sometimes asked to pick right and sometimes wrong—and can gain extra points if they bet well, or lose everything if they bet poorly. The questions are fun; the gameplay is fast-paced. Half Truth is perfect for parties, rewarding both the quiz nerds and those who can only guess blindly.
In regular dominoes, players try to match the numbered “pips” on rectangular tiles. In Kingdomino, those dots are replaced with pictures of grasslands, water, and swamps, which players piece together to create their own individual kingdoms, trying their best to assemble a land that’s completely square. The task is enjoyably challenging, and I love that it’s uncomplicated and quick to play. What I appreciate most about Kingdomino, however, is that rather than taking turns in clockwise order, the player who picked the least desirable domino in the previous round gets to go first. So unlike in other games, the rich don’t just keep getting richer. On a round-by-round basis, building a good kingdom in Kingdomino means sometimes you have to choose to lose.
In 2011, designer Rob Daviau introduced one of the more exciting innovations in tabletop gaming: the “legacy edition,” wherein popular preexisting board games are converted into something more like narrative-driven Dungeons & Dragons–style role-playing campaigns, which players can shape and even permanently change each time they play. Many legacy editions are quite complex, like those for Pandemic and Betrayal at House on the Hill. But Machi Koro Legacy is a perfect gateway to understanding and enjoying these legacy editions. It relies on the simple card-collecting and card-laying mechanics of the original Machi Koro—with easy-to-learn rules—but gradually opens up into a delightfully surprising fantasy universe.
It takes a combination of careful plotting and dumb luck to do well in this ingenious dice game, in which players try to connect the segments of train lines and roads generated by a series of random rolls. Everyone has to work off the same set of dice, but each player has their own dry-erase board and marker, to plot their individual course round by round. Challenging and unpredictable—and portable for travel—Railroad Ink is a game that people will ask to play again almost immediately after they finish.