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Top Games To Gift In 2019

Jim Lowder's top Games to Gift list includes Wingspan, Jaws, and Just One.

Here at Lake Effect, one of our favorite holiday traditions is our annual Games to Gift list. Complied by our resident games expert Jim Lowder, the list is in its 10th year.

Lowder says there continues to be an oversaturation of games in the market. The influx of new games not only causes shelf shortage in hobby stores, but an attention shortage for players. So no matter how fantastic a game is, "finding a market now is really tough because the competition is very, very rigorous," says Lowder.

One new trend in games for 2019 is the greater availability in solo game modes, which Lowder says is touching upon the larger societal trend of people having limited time for group play. However, despite the need for solo rules, role playing games (RPGs) continue to be the top trend in culture, according to Lowder. And the stigma about RPG players is diminishing as well.

READ: Dungeons & Dragon's Wisconsin Roots & The Evolution Of Role-Playing Games

"It's the third or fourth generation of gamers now who can claim space in pop culture that was never available to the people who were playing in the '70s and '80s," Lowder notes. "When you go to game conventions now you see a much broader spectrum of people. There are families, there are a lot more women, there are people of color — it's marvelous."

This year, Lowder and Lake Effect's Bonnie North talk about the changing gaming landscape, along with Lowder's suggestions in role-playing, hobby, family, and other game categories:

Top Pick
Credit Stonemaier Games
Stonemaier Games
Competitive birdwatching may not be the first topic that leaps to mind as a winning board game theme, but Wingspan has taken the gaming world by force.


Players: 1-5

Ages: 10 and up

About: "This is a really lovely middle-weight game," says Lowder. "It's not going to be so hard that you feel like you need to devote hours to studying the rules. But once you play it a few times, you're going to realize that there are strategies that you'll want to pursue to win."

Competitive birdwatching may not be the first topic that leaps to mind as a winning board game theme, but Elizabeth Hargrave has built a marvelous design around it with Wingspan. The game has players taking on the roles of rival bird enthusiasts who scheme to attract birds of different types to their wildlife preserves. Points are gathered in various ways, from placing birds in the proper habitats to collecting eggs. Resource management becomes important, too, as you try to balance your feed supply with the bird population.

There’s a lot going on during play, but the rules are well written and have clear explanations for all card effects. Wingspan is a superior game that will entertain casual gamers and hardcore hobbyists — even while offering up educational content, which is quite a feat. Like many of this year’s picks, it also boasts solo rules for when you can’t get your regular game group together for a session.

Role Playing Games
Credit Wizards RPG Team
Wizards RPG Team
The new introduction to Dungeons & Dragons features condensed rules, streamlined character creation, a fistful of dice, and a new adventure.

Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit 

Players: 2–6

Ages: 12 and up

About: Wizards of the Coast already had a perfectly serviceable starter set on the market for the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons. But it went back to the design table to create the superior Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit.

This new introduction to the world’s most famous RPG features condensed rules, streamlined character creation, a fistful of dice, and a new adventure. It also includes rules for one-on-one play and access codes for content on D&D Beyond, the game’s online platform. If you’ve been curious about Dungeons & Dragons or "if you have trouble getting your game group together, this is a way to pivot the game toward a smaller group," says Lowder.

Credit Chaosium Inc.
Chaosium Inc.
Call of Cthulhu is an investigatory horror adventure RPG that plays a bit like a pick-a-path adventure.

Call of Cthulhu Starter Set 

Players: 1-6

Ages: 12 and up

About: An investigatory horror RPG, Call of Cthulhu boxed set offers a basic version of the rules, including character creation, pregenerated characters, various handouts, a book of scenarios, dice, and a solo adventure book, Alone Against the Flames.

The solo adventure plays a bit like a pick-a-path adventure, but it also teaches you the fundamentals of the RPG’s rules as you play through it. In addition, the solo adventure gives you an easy way to introduce other potential players to the game. If you think someone might be interested in joining your group to battle the cosmic horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos, have them play through Alone Against the Flames first to get a taste of the rules and the types of stories the game features. All this makes the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set a great choice for players with limited or no experience with RPGs.

"You get to tell the story of how that character got destroyed, and that's the narrative that the game system models. It's a great one shot, one night game to play for four hours," says Lowder.

Cyberpunk Red Jumpstarter Kit 

Players: 2-6

Ages: 12 and up

About: The new Cyberpunk starter set introduces players to the rich world of Mike Pondsmith’s classic role-playing game, first published back in 1988. Cyberpunk is set in a near-future dystopia where corporations fight massive wars and the average person lives day-to-day using their street smarts and their cybernetic enhancements. The set also provides a bridge between the original Cyberpunk 2020 game and the upcoming video game Cyberpunk 2077.

Like the other introductory boxes covered here, this one includes a condensed set of rules, along with pregenerated characters and some classic adventures. The Cyberpunk character creation rules are a bit more complicated, so players new to RPGs will want to utilize the pregenerated characters for their first adventures. But there’s a world of great stories to be told as your heroes struggle to survive in the ruinous aftermath of the latest globe-spanning corporate war. (Hey, no one said all these games were escapist fantasies.)

Hobby Games
Credit Fantasy Flight Games
Fantasy Flight Games
The strategy in Marvel Champions is in deciding which cards to select for a deck as the heroes band together to try to foil a villains’ nefarious scheme.

Marvel Champions: The Card Game

Players: 1-4

Ages: 14 and up

About: Marvel Champions is a fixed deck, expandable card game set in the now-familiar Marvel superhero universe. Heroes in the core set include Spider-Man, Captain Marvel, Black Panther, and Iron Man. Unlike collectable card games such as Magic: The Gathering, this boxed set provides all players with the same cards. The strategy is in deciding which cards to select for a deck as the heroes band together to try to foil a villains’ nefarious scheme. If the heroes prevent the scheme’s completion, they win. If not, it’s time to revise the play deck and try again.  

"Your hero has two identities. It has the secret identity and the hero identity. Depending on which side you're playing, that is how you will interact with the villain. You can do things in the background and that changes the dynamic," explains Lowder.

The villain deck includes the expected combat options. It also includes specific nemeses for each hero, who can show up to complicate the fight, as well as character obligations. These are challenges that can impede the heroes and are tied to their specific backstory, adding a narrative element to the game that helps anchor it firmly to the source material and raise it above the typical deckbuilding superhero combat game.

Bee Lives: We Will Only Know Summer designed by Matt Shoemaker has a solo board representing the hive’s interior and a common board to simulate the outside world.

Bee Lives: We Will Only Know Summer 

Players: 1-4

Ages: 14 and up

About: With Bee Lives, beekeeper and scholar Matt Shoemaker created a clever worker placement and resource management game that's built around the lifecycle of the honeybee. Players move through the year, striving to improve their wild hive and defend against threats both internal and external. The struggles play out on a solo board representing the hive’s interior and a common board to simulate the outside world.

"You can raid, you can steal honey, and all of that is controlled by resource management and worker placement. The beehive with the best points at the end of the year wins!" Lowder explains.

Steal honey from neighboring hives, spawn new colonies, maintain your own hive’s cleanliness, but be sure to balance your efforts to keep your colony healthy and successful. Different types of queens add another layer of complexity, with each type granting the hive a different strength. The game boasts high quality components, in particular the “beeple” bee tokens, and a solid amount of educational content presented in a fun and entertaining fashion.

Family Games


Players: 2-4

Ages: 12 and up

About: "The really remarkable thing about this is there was a time where licensed games ... were, for game companies, the things they put the least amount of effort in," notes Lowder. "Now, because of the amount of thought and the amount of incredible talent that's available for these game designs, even licensed games like this are remarkable."

Ravensburger’s new Jaws game, inspired by the blockbuster 1975 Steven Spielberg Jaws film, is anything but predictable. One person plays the shark and three others are fighting against it with the action taking place over two acts.

In the first act, one player directs the killer shark secretively through the waters around Amity Island while the other players work cooperatively to save swimmers from the predator and pin down its exact location. Once Brody, Quint, and Hooper locate the shark, or enough unfortunate vacationers become shark food, the board is flipped to the side representing the Orca and the second act begins.

Event cards representing key moments from the movie liven things up throughout. Jaws is a smart, engaging game on its own, mixing deduction and hidden movement mechanics with cooperative combat. But its affection for and effective use of its inspiration make it a licensed game of the highest caliber.

Credit Formal Ferret Games
Formal Ferret Games
Wordsy is a clever variation on word games like Scrabble and Boggle.


Players: 1-6

Ages: 10 and up

About: Wordsy from Gil Hova and Formal Ferret Games offers a clever variation on word games such as Scrabble and Boggle. Eight consonant cards are arranged in four rows, two cards each, which assigns the cards a value of two to five points for the round. A few consonants come with bonuses, reflecting the challenge they present for use. Once the eighth card is revealed, the players try to come up with a word that uses as many of the letters as possible, especially the letters in the high-value columns.

Players aren't constrained by the letters in play, but they only receive points for the letters used from the table. Once the first player writes down a word, they flip a timer and the rest of the players have 30 seconds to write down their word. This adds a push-your-luck mechanic to the mix since players can get bonuses for offering up a higher-scoring word than the person who flipped the timer. Trigger the end of the round with a mediocre word and you may be handing points to your competitors. Wait too long and you forfeit the points you might get for flipping the timer and having the best word score. Wordsy includes solo rules, as well as rules for making the game more balanced for players of varying skill levels.

"It's lovely. I really enjoy the game a lot. It's addictive and it plays very quickly," says Lowder.

Party Game

Just One

Players: 3-7

Ages: 8 and up

About: "This is another sort of a stand-out because it is a cooperative party game, which you don't see a lot of," notes Lowder. "This works for a family game and kid's game as well."

Fully cooperative party games are something of a rarity. But Just One shows that it's possible to create a good one that can be played by a wide range of ages.

In the game, the active player picks a word card, but doesn't look at it. That player then closes their eyes and each of the other players comes up with a single-word clue to write on their dry erase easel. The clues are compared. Any that match are erased. Finally, the active player looks at all the remaining clues and tries to guess the target word. Over 13 rounds, the group tries to amass the perfect total score. But wrong guesses bring about scoring penalties, so obtaining that perfect score is quite a challenge.

Kids Games

Credit HABA
The race track for Snail Sprint! is more than just a board — the tin where the game is stored serves as part of the track, with the snails climbing up and over the magnetized container.

Snail Sprint! 

Players: 2-4

Ages: 5 and up 

About: "A marvelous race game," Snail Sprint! takes a race-around-the-track game and builds a thoroughly engaging design upon that timeworn foundation. At the start of the game, players draw cards that reveal what color snails they want to see finish the race through Mrs. Meyer’s vegetable garden — in first, second, and third position. But they keep that card hidden, so as the race is happening no one really knows what their competitors are up to. The hidden victory conditions also mean that the contest will seem competitive right up until the colored snails take their places on the podium.

Best of all, the race track is more than just a board. The tin where the game is stored serves as part of the track, with the snails climbing up and over the magnetized container, which Lowder says is "just really clever."

Inventive components, a brisk 15-minute play time and a great use of hidden goals make Snail Sprint! a superior game for younger kids.

Credit The Happy Puzzle Company
The Happy Puzzle Company
Genius Square boasts over 60,000 possible puzzle combinations for maximum replay value.

Genius Square

Players: 1-2

Ages: 6 and up

About: We're covering The Genius Square as a game accessible for kids as young as six, but it’s really a terrific puzzle game for all ages. Each player gets a six-by-six grid, along with nine different shapes and a set of blocker squares. First, players roll the dice to place the blockers in locations on the grid. Then the players race to utilize all of their pieces to complete the pattern.

Simple idea, wonderful execution, and a game that boasts over 60,000 possible puzzle combinations, for maximum replay value. The Genius Square has earned high praise from educators and game designers alike.

"It's a great spacial recognition game and it works for young kids. And it's actually something that adults would love to play because it's a puzzle game, and this is one where kids can wallop adults," says Lowder.

As with many of this year’s selections, it also includes solo rules for puzzle fans who want to compete with themselves.

Books About Games

Board Games in 100 Moves 

About: This new hardcover from DK could of interest to the game aficionado or general history buff on your holiday gift list. Board Games in 100 Moves is written by Ian Livingstone, bestselling author of several volumes in the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series and co-founder of Games Workshop; and James Wallis, designer of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen and co-designer of the brilliant card game Once Upon a Time.

Board Games in 100 Moves is "a primer crash course if you want to know the history of games right up until the present from two game designers who absolutely know their stuff," says Lowder. "It's got wonderful illustrations. It's a very thorough, very interesting book."

The book is packed with information. But it's heavily illustrated and has concise text, making this a quick and thorough introduction to the topic. It's an entertaining work to browse and an expert source for suggestions on new games to try.

>>Take Lowder's Game List To Your Local Game Store

Maggie Holdorf
Maggie Holdorf started as a WUWM Lake Effect intern in September 2019.
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 is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.