© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Top Games to Gift in 2016

Every December since 2010, Lake Effect has been joined by writer and game expert James Lowder. He is the  editor of the award-winning essay anthologies Hobby Games: The 100 Best, and Family Games: The 100 Best.

During 2016, Lowder noticed three trends in the gaming world:

  1. Hobby games' increase in popularity: The average price for a hobby game a year or two ago averaged $50-$75. Now prices have increased to $75-$125 or more in part due to Kickstarter.
    "A lot of these games start life as a Kickstarter project and they can get a lot of money for the base game from that crowd because they are the really, really hardcore devoted fans," Lowder explains.
  2. Great design innovations: "Kids games and family games have seen people putting a lot of thought into making new and interesting game mechanics, even for games at that level which is exciting."
  3. The resurrection of role playing games (lead by Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition)

This year, Lowder suggests these new and notable games to give as gifts - for nearly every age and ability level:
Top Game of 2016

IMHOTEP: Builder Of Egypt (2-4 players; ages 10 & up)

This well-designed area-influence game from Phil Walker-Harding, IMHOTEP strikes a balance between simplicity and depth of strategy. Over six rounds, players move wooden “stone blocks” by boat to create monuments. Each turn consists of a single action: procure new stones, load a boat, build a monument or play a card. The limited choices mean things move quickly—a typical game only takes 30 to 40 minutes—but each decision can seriously impact the player’s point total at the end of the game, so choices matter.
"It's a game that's going to be accessible to pretty much everybody. It's just a generally fun game," says Lowder.

Top Role Playing Game

Call of Cthulhu, 7th Edition (2-? players, ages 14 & up)

After several years stalled in Kickstarter limbo, the newest edition of the venerable Call of Cthulhu role-playing game finally made it out into the world in early 2016. Call of Cthulhu pits players in a frightening battle against the cosmic horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos, a horror story cycle founded by H.P. Lovecraft in the 1920s and extensively expanded upon by a host of other writers, filmmakers, and artists since then. The Basic Role-Playing System that powers Call of Cthulhu is fast to learn and fun to play, and the game’s sanity mechanic is simply brilliant.

[Full disclosure: Lowder's been working with Chaosium on their fiction line for the past year, but has been a player and fan of Call of Cthulhu since the game’s first edition, way back in 1981.]

Credit Fireside Games
Fireside Games

Family Games

1. Dastardly Dirigibles (2-5 players, ages 8 & up)

Professor Phineas Edmund Hornswoggle, famed airship builder, is retiring and you are an engineer competing to inherit the Hornswoggle factory. Players build airships using cards of nine different suits, while playing the relatively rare special cards to thwart their rivals or gain other advantages. Each of the three rounds ends when one airship is complete, but you score only for the suit used most in your construction. Fun steampunk-themed game with several nicely balanced mechanics that keep play interesting.

"The interplay between players is really sharp, cases some strategy decisions on what cards you hold and what cards you throw away, which cards you play and when, which makes it a really fun strategy game but one's that accessible," says Lowder.

2. Between Two Cities (1-7 players, ages 8 & up)

Players are city planners trying to redesign two cities. For each city, the player is paired with another player, to collaborate and create the most livable metropolis. Over three rounds, players draw and place tiles representing homes, parks, shops, and so on to build a four-by-four grid, with the composition and juxtaposition of the tiles determining the score.

"At the end of the game, you score the city that has the least number of points...so you actually have to negotiate with both players and pay attention to what you're putting down," explains Lowder. "It's a very light, fast game. It plays quickly and there's a strategy component that's going to make it interesting for older players too."

Children's Games

Credit Blue Orange Games
Blue Orange Games

1. Dr. Eureka (1-4 players, ages 8 & up)

Kids and adults will enjoy this clever combination dexterity and logic game. As scientists working in the lab of the brilliant Dr. Eureka, you’ve been given some experiments to complete. To do so, you must transfer the molecules (balls) from test tube to test tube without spilling them or touching them with your hands. But speed is also required if you’re going to best the other scientists.

"It's a great game, but it's also something you don't have to play competitively. You can just play to solve the puzzles," says Lowder.

2. Ticket to Ride: First Journey (2-4 players, ages 6 & up)

"The gold standard for train games," according to Lowder. "A wonderful all-ages strategy game."

A scaled-down version of the popular and entertaining Ticket to Ride train games for kids as young as six. Players draw tickets that tell them which two cities their train network needs to connect, and then collect card sets that allow them to claim track segments. Players alternate turns until someone completes six tickets or someone runs out of trains, in which case the player with the most completed tickets wins.

Hobby Game

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle (2-4 players, ages 11 & up)

"It's highly cooperative...so it's in the spirit of the novels," says Lowder.

Players take on the role of Harry, Hermione, Ron, or Neville and defend Hogwarts Castle in this cooperative deck-building card game. Each player has a personal deck of cards that is used to attack villains and aid allies. As a player gains influence, that deck can be expanded to include more allied characters, spells, and magic items. Only by working together can the heroes stop the villains from gaining control of important locations, a fact emphasized in the card choices available to players. Best of all, when the team wins a game, a new level is unlocked, one for each of the seven core Harry Potter novels.

Party Games

1. Hive Mind (3-12 players, ages 8 & up)

"A rare party game that works for both kids and adults," says Lowder.

In Hive Mind, players are bees within a hive, trying to prove to the queen that they deserve to stay. To this end they answer questions, and the more answers a player bee has in common with other player bees, the more points they receive. Get the fewest points in a turn and your Beeple moves closer to the hive’s exit. Once a bee leaves the hive, the game ends and all the surviving bees win.

Credit Asmodee Games
Asmodee Games

2. Captain Sonar (2–8 players, ages 14 & up)

"A group version of Battleship where you get a team of ideally eight people," notes Lowder. "A marvelously designed game."

Two teams of one to four people control opposing subs, each secretly guiding their boat around a large gridded map. Within each team, players take on different roles—captain, chief mate, engineer, and radio operator—and each role has specific responsibilities to map out the enemy’s movement and guess their location. The game can be played either in turn mode or in a much more frantic real-time mode.

Stocking Stuffer

Credit Haywire Group
Haywire Group

Box of Rocks

"Basically asking the question, 'Are you smarter than a box of rocks?'"

Players take turns answering trivia questions by selecting one of three numbered answers on a card. After each answer, the player shakes the box with two numbered “rocks” inside, to determine the guess from the box of rocks. Open the box and check who has the right answer—you or the rocks. It’s a best-of-three challenge, especially fun to play with a group of friends as spectators to your potential stony humiliation.

Gaming-Related Books

1. The Civilized Guide to Tabletop Gaming (ages 14 & up)

"It covers the whole range - how to find a good hobby store, how to make the most game conventions, how to deal with bad losers at the table, etc.," says Lowder. "A wonderful introductory guide that even new people and veterans will get a lot out of. Light and fun with great, sharp writing."

2. Dungeonology (ages 10 & up)

From Beloit author Matt Forbeck, Dungeonology is the latest in the Ology series of YA art and activity books. The book introduces readers to the Forgotten Realms fantasy world and many of the core concepts of Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy role-playing games.

"It's got pop-up components and gorgeous art and a neat story that weaves through it. It's a really terrific middle-grade/young adult sort of introduction to role playing," says Lowder.

3. The Munchkin Book (ages 14 & up)

A collection of essays about the wildly popular card game, including pieces from the game’s designers, its signature artist, and various mavens of geek culture. The essays include humorous pieces from the monsters’ perspective and another framing Munchkin as a dating aid, as well as more serious explorations of the game theory behind the design, the creative process behind a new Munchkin set, and the way demos are created and run at conventions. The book also includes 18 official game rules that can be used in your home Munchkin sessions.

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.
James Lowder has worked in fiction and hobby game publishing for more than two decades. He is the editor of the award-winning anthologies Hobby Games: The 100 Best and Family Games, available in print and now in select ebook formats. The anthologies feature short essays by the top game designers and publishers from around the world, sharing their personal selections for the most enjoyable and innovative card games, board games, miniatures games, and role-playing games of the last century.
Audrey Nowakowski is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.