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One Thanksgiving weekend about a decade ago, I was playing a game of Skip-Bo with my wife, our kids, and my in-laws. At one point in the middle of a round, I was re-shuffling the cards when our nine-year-old complained I was disturbing one of the discard stacks he had neatly laid out in front of him. Quietly but indignantly, he said, “The force of your shuffling has caused my pile of 10s to flutter.”
That young man is now in college, and his sibling will be leaving home next fall, leaving my wife and me with an empty nest. But I expect that for the rest of our lives, whenever our kids come home, or my in-laws visit, we’ll laugh together about that fluttering pile of 10s. Because that’s what a family game night is all about: Creating moments that become lore, shared across generations.
The hardest part is finding a good, fun game that everyone can play. During the holidays especially, you want as many people as possible to gather around the table: the grade-schoolers, the teens, the parents, and the seniors. But there are challenges to overcome. Some games have rules too complicated for the very young or the very old. Some reward lived experience, disadvantaging the kids. Some require physical dexterity, disadvantaging the frail. Some play better with fewer people. Some just take too dang long, leaving everyone exhausted and peevish.
Understandably, many families stick with the standby “simple” games, like Uno, Sequence, Sorry and Yahtzee. And there’s nothing wrong with any of those. Uno in particular is a near-perfect inter-generational game: easy to learn, suitable for large groups, playable in short bursts (or over epic-length sessions for those who like that sort of thing), and requiring just enough strategy to keep even the family’s sharpest wits engaged.
But if you’re looking for something new to try with your folks this year—and, I hope, for many years to come—here are a few suggestions for games that are generally inexpensive, uncomplicated, great for groups, and challenging enough for experienced gamers and casual players alike to enjoy together. A safe age range for all of these is 7 to 77; but many younger kids and older adults will be capable of joining in.
If your experience with Anomia is anything like mine, I guarantee that after playing just a few times, your family will have a slew of new in-jokes. Anomia is a fast-paced version of the “name the first thing that pops into your head” kind of party game (like Scattergories). Players are presented with cards featuring broad categories like “salad dressing,” “amphibian” or “super hero,” and the first person to name anything that fits wins a point. The panicked, spontaneous replies are often hilariously wrong—but can also be surprisingly astute. You may be shocked to discover that your junior high schooler knows the name of a famous jazz musician, or that your grandpa has heard of Beyoncé. Or, as in our household, you may be laughing for years about the time your seven-year-old had to think of something for the category “cause of death” and blurted out, “Murder!”
Yahtzee has long been a reliable staple of family gatherings; but it’s far from the only good option from the “roll and write” genre of dice games. Farkle is an even better Yahtzee-like game than Yahtzee, because it combines the familiar “make sets and straights from dice rolls” rules with an exciting element of all-in risk. Whoever has control of the dice can keep rolling and banking points for as long as they like—until they choose to stop or until they reach the overall goal of 10,000 points. But if they ever roll something useless, they lose everything they scored that turn. Farkle is a game that encourages players to take big chances; and it also allows people to make big, thrilling comebacks… the stuff of family legend.
I’ve recommended this game before, and for good reason: It’s a fantastic variation on a classic card game. Kids and their grandparents have been playing Rummy for generations. Rummikub—which has been around since the 1940s—replaces the cards with numbered plastic tiles, but it still follows basic Rummy rules, with players “melding” those tiles into as many sets and runs as they can. Besides its equipment, what sets Rummikub apart is that people are allowed to get increasingly creative with their moves as a round stretches on. The sets and runs already on the table are fair game for anyone to take apart and re-assemble into new melds; so by the end of most Rummikub rounds, each turn becomes an elaborate and incredibly entertaining puzzle, as players move pieces around feverishly, trying to get rid of the last of their tiles.
There is a whole sub-genre of tile-connecting games that are similar to Scrabble but which use shapes and colors instead of letters—meaning there’s no need for players to be strong spellers or know obscure words. Qwirkle is among the best-known and the most widely available of these. It’s ideal for the young and old alike, because its big wooden tiles sport bright, bold designs that are easy to discern. Each turn, players lay these tiles down on a table (no board needed) in a few simple groupings: four reds, three circles, et cetera. The more tiles that link up, the higher the score. It’s incredibly satisfying to fill a table with colorful patterns; and even when it’s not your turn, it’s fun to think along with your opponents, as they figure out their best possible play.
Like Monopoly and Clue and other longtime family favorites, Labyrinth has been around for so long (35 years!) and has become so popular that you can now buy multiple branded versions of the game: Pokémon Labyrinth, Harry Potter Labyrinth, Super Mario Labyrinth… take your pick. In every iteration, players collect objects scattered throughout the corridors of a maze that’s constantly changing. At the start of each turn, players shift the layout and then move their piece. Because no one can plan too far ahead with a board that keeps moving, this equalizes everyone’s skill-level quite a bit. Much of the fun of the game—even for the opponents—is witnessing that “aha!” moment when someone realizes just how to shift the maze around just so, to gather their treasure.
A cult favorite among fans of clever card games, the German 6 Nimmt! has been available in the U.S. sporadically over the years, originally under the translated name Take 6!. It’s back now back on the shelves as Take 5 (with no exclamation point). Despite the name-change, the rules remain the same. In each turn, all the players simultaneously select a numbered card from their hands, placing them in ascending order in one of four rows. The one who ends up placing the sixth card in any row gets penalized. The rules are simple, but avoiding playing that sixth card demands some shrewd planning and guesswork, and can lead to people making catastrophic blunders that get the whole table laughing and moaning in sympathy. (Another selling-point for Take 5? As many 10 people at a time can play, which is perfect for big gatherings.)
Over and Out
Like Take 5, this card game relies on a lot of luck, a little bit of strategy and a smidgen of math. Players start with a hand of four numbered cards and then add them one by one to a pile, counting up until someone plays a card that pushes the pile past a preset target number. (For example: If the target is 33 and the numbers of all the cards in the pile add up to 32, if you play anything higher than a 1 from your hand, you lose.) The loser starts the next round with just three cards; if they lose again, they’re down to two cards, and so on. When players lose all their cards, they’re out. Over and Out is fast-paced, easy to learn, and at times hilariously unpredictable, thanks to some special cards that can change the target number or can subtract from the pile’s total sum. The longer any round goes, the more the pressure mounts, and the more everyone whoops when someone finally fails.
Ticket to Ride: London
The original version of Ticket to Ride is relatively easy to learn and has a high replay-ability factor—making it a good introduction to the more strategy-oriented modern tabletop games, like Catan and Wingspan. But it is fairly expensive for a board game; and it can take up to an hour for players to fill up the map with their little plastic trains, connecting up cities. For those who want a Ticket to Ride that’s quicker to play and cheaper to buy, why not try one of the miniaturized versions? Both the New York and the London maps are nicely compact, with fewer stations to link up. There is a simplified kids’ version of the game too called First Journey; but New York and London offer a more traditional Ticket to Ride experience, just at a shorter length (and with cute little taxi-cabs and double-decker buses instead of trains).
And here’s another suggestion: Because these variations only take about 15 minutes to zip through, my family sometimes plays round-robin tournaments, with two people at a time competing until everyone’s had a chance to square off. Think outside the box—literally—and you can make an already great game into the centerpiece event of your get-together.