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Top Games To Gift In 2020

Despite not being able to gather in large groups, gaming expert James Lowder has many suggestions for pandemic appropriate games to gift this year.

The holiday season is in full swing and many of us are already trying to figure out what to buy our loved ones. Although extended family gatherings may not be safe this year, there are still ways to stay connected and gaming is one of them.

Every year gaming expert James Lowder gives us his picks for the games to gift.

This year he says it’s important to plan ahead and buy from local game shops because the pandemic has rocked the distribution of games and can make some hard to find. But if you contact your local store and don’t have your heart set on one specific game, you should be good to go.

Top Game



Players: 2-6

Ages: 14 and up

About: You will become the leader of one of six great factions. Each wish to control the most valuable resource in the universe: mélange. The mysterious spice can only be found at great cost on the planet DUNE. Who will control DUNE? Become one of the characters and their forces from the book and you decide.

“It’s an asymmetrical game where each one of the factions has different strengths and powers," Lowder explains. "There’s negotiation, there is alliances, there’s area control, it’s got a lot going on and is a lot of fun."

Two Player

Credit Thomassie Mangiok
Nunami is an Inuit table top game that promotes healthy cohabitation with natural elements.


Ages: 10 and up

About: Nunami is a dynamic terrain management game in which nature and occupants seek to have greater influence with respect to others. Like life, it starts simply and then becomes challenging as you develop skills.

“This is sort of an abstract game but it’s also got an ethos, the idea is that if either the human player or the player controlling nature pushes a hexagon too far in on direction, if it gets too developed with humans, if it gets too wild with nature, bad things can happen to that player,” says Lowder.

Credit Wizards of the Coast
Arena Starter Decks are designed to be played with friends in-person and online with MTG Arena.

Magic: The Gathering Arena Starter Kit

Ages: 13 and up

About: Magic: The Gathering has been around since 1993 but this is the trading card game’s attempt and connecting its physical cards with their digital games.

Arena Starter Kits are the best way to learn to play Magic for fans who don't know where to start. With two 60-card decks, it's easy to learn and play with a friend. Plus, the deck's digital codes redeem for the same decks on the digital platform MTG Arena, so new players can practice with their decks online.

“You can get tired of playing the same battle against the same person, this gives you a lot of other options,” notes Lowder.

Family Games


Isle of Cats

Players: 1-4

Ages: 8 and up

About: You are citizens of Squalls End on a rescue mission to The Isle of Cats and must rescue as many cats as possible before the evil Lord Vesh arrives. Each cat is represented by a unique tile and belongs to a family, and you must find a way to make them all fit on your boat while keeping families together.

“It’s very fast to play, it’s got a solo mode, it’s also got a family mode, as well as a hobby mode," says Lowder. "[In] the hobby mode you do a little more resource management, the family mode simplifies the game a little bit."


Players: 1-100

Ages: 10 and up

Credit Thunderworks Games
A game of Cartographer set up to start.

About: Players compete to earn the most reputation stars by the time four seasons have passed. Each season, players draw on their map sheets and earn reputation by carrying out the queen's edicts before the season is over. The player with the most reputation stars at the end of winter wins.

“You explore the territory by flipping over cards which will describe shapes that you need to draw into your map and then the terrain you need to draw in with it. And the players, based on the cards, can usually pick one of two different things to put together and they get to choose where the shapes go, so everybody’s maps are completely different,” Lowder says.

Godzilla: Tokyo Clash

Players: 2-4

Ages: 10 and up

Credit Funko Games
Godzilla: Tokyo Clash is great for fans of the original movies or fun strategy games.

About: You play as the Earth's most fearsome Kaiju — Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah, and Megalon — battling for dominance as the most terrifying monster in Japan. With detailed miniatures of the legendary monsters and a modular cityscape of 3D buildings to destroy, it's an epic battle every time you play.

“[Godzilla: Tokyo Clash] is just a good clash game, sorta like the board game King of Tokyo or King of New York,” says Lowder. “Especially if you are a fan of the Godzilla movie series.”

Kids Games

Lowder says that with all games, especially those made for kids, the rules are just suggestions. If you find a way to modify a game to make it easier for younger kids or more fun, don’t feel the need to be married to the rules in the box!

Wobble King

Wobble King is a fun dexterity game for kids ages three and older. 

Players: 2-4

Ages: 4 and up

About: In Wobble King you use a wooden stick to try to retrieve at least one silver nugget from underneath the game board, after which you place the silver nugget(s) on the round spaces at the edge of the game board. If the game boards tilts so that at least one edge touches the table or the lion tips over, the player must take a tomato tile. The player who has been caught twice has rotten tomatoes thrown at them by King Leo's guards and will unfortunately be the loser. The other players can relish their victory in this wobbly test of courage.

“This is a bit of a throwback to the old Ideal games like Don’t Break The Ice and things like that it’s partly physical challenge,” notes Lowder.

Credit Devir Games
The Color Monster is designed to be a fun way for kids to learn to describe their emotions.

The Color Monster

Players: 2-5

Ages: 3 and up

About: Players in The Color Monster collaborate to help the Monster figure out his emotions. In turns, they roll the die that allows them to move the Monster around the board. Players will have to explain a memory or a situation in which they feel like the emotion they are picking up (Happiness, Sadness, Anger, Fear or Calm). The players can lose the game if the Monster gets too confused and they flip over too many mixed emotion jars or win the game when the emotions are all placed in their correct jars.

“For kids that have been dealing with the pandemic, this is a great platform to be talking about feelings they have maybe been dealing with,” says Lowder.

Hobby Games


Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion

Players: 1-4

Ages: 14 and up

About: The game is aimed at a more casual audience to get people into the gameplay more quickly. All of the hard-to-organize cardboard map tiles have been removed, and instead players will play on the scenario book itself, which features new artwork unique to each scenario. The last barrier to entry — i.e., learning the game — has also been lowered through a simplified rule set and a five-scenario tutorial that will ease new players into the experience.

“It plays in 25 different scenarios where you are trying to uncover the mysteries surrounding some disapperances in the city, it introduces four new fantasy characters that you can actually move into the main Gloomhaven game. This stands alone but it has a lot of replay ability,” Lowder says.

Credit Alderac Entertainment
Mariposas focuses on the lifecycle of Monarch butterflies for simple but strategy filled gameplay.


Players: 2-4

Ages: 14 and up

About: The game is played in three seasons. In general, your butterflies try to head north in spring, spread out in summer, and return south in fall. The end of each season brings a scoring round and at the end of fall, the player with the most successful family of butterflies wins the game.

“The game itself is relatively simple, its largely that movement and set collection but there are a number of things about the cards and the tokens that you can encounter that add a lot of strategy and invites repeated, deep play,” notes Lowder.

Imperial Struggle

Players: 2

Ages: 14 and up

About: The game is a two-player game depicting the 18th-century rivalry between France and Britain. It begins in 1697, as the two realms wait warily for the King of Spain to name an heir and ends in 1789, when a new order brought down the Bastille. The game is not merely about war: both France and Britain must build the foundations of colonial wealth, deal with the other nations of Europe, and compete for glory across the span of human endeavor.

“Older games that handle topics like this tended to gloss over the history, so when you are looking at the conflict between the empires, the negative things that happened in history, the ugliness of imperialism,” says Lowder. “It’s designed primarily not as a historical teaching tool, it’s designed as a good war game, but it’s got that aspect to it as well that’s going to invite some serious consideration of what kinds of things you do to win the game.”

Role-Playing Games


About: A universe of body horror and corporate brinkmanship, where synthetic people play god while space truckers and marines serve host to newborn ghoulish creatures. It’s a harsh and unforgiving universe and you are nothing if not expendable.

“It’s essentially a really great dark fantasy horror science fiction,” says Lowder.


Fiasco Box Set

About: Fiasco is a story-telling game inspired by cinematic tales of small-time capers gone disastrously wrong. You’ll tell a story about ordinary people with powerful ambition and poor impulse control! Lives and reputations will be lost, painful wisdom will be gained, and if you are really lucky, you just might end up back where you started.

“Fiasco plays as a role-playing game, it’s sort of one part role-playing game, one part party game, and one part improv troupe excersise,” explains Lowder.

Gaming Book

The Ultimate Micro-RPG Book

Credit Adams Media
With these quick-start games, you can create your own adventures, alone or with friends, without any prep, and with minimal set up and pieces.

  About: 40 expertly crafted micro-RPGs that are fast, fun, easy to learn, and come in a variety of genres — from space exploration to jungle dungeon crawlers — everything you need to pick up and play today.

“[This book has] lots of play value and it can be a gateway into playing role-playing games as a hobby,” says Lowder.

Stocking Stuffers


The Mind Extreme

Players: 2-4

Ages: 8 and up

About: Players try to play cards from their hand in ascending order without consulting one another. The higher the level, the more cards you have in hand, giving you more to juggle, but also more information to use during play.

“It’s an amazing concept that actually works and it’s a game that has a lot of replay value because each turn plays really fast and if you fail, you’ll see the group change their dynamics and change their behavior,” notes Lowder.


Credit Blue Orange Games
Animix is a set collection game with beautiful, modern illustrations.

Players: 2-6 

Ages: 8 and up

About: Players try to score the most points by keeping the right mix of animals. The animals you keep score points based on the other animals that are played in the center of the table. Each type of animal scores points differently, so plan ahead to make sure the cards you keep and the cards you play are the perfect mix to win the game.

“It’s a great design and again, another really, really fast play and it’s a game that works great for kids and adults,” says Lowder.

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
James Lowder has worked in fiction and hobby game publishing for more than three 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.