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the 17 best board games for holiday family fun – TechCrunch

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Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2018 Holiday Gift Guide! Need more gift ideas? Check out our Gift Guide Hub.

Ah, holiday board gaming. A roaring fire. A glass of nog. And a raging debate over whether the blue guy was next to the red square or vice versa.

Buying a gift for a board game fan? Just need something new to bring along to the get together? In this roundup we highlight some of what we’ve been playing lately — from the easy to the immensely complex — and give you and your family fodder for your next bout of holiday fun. Some new, some old, all great.

 

Machi Koro

This super-cute card game involves building a city using special buildings and attractions. Will your city have a power station, a noodle bar and a playground? Or will you focus on a TV station, a bakery and city hall? Think of it as a whimsical Sim City in physical form.

 

King of Tokyo

Who do you want to be today? A giant lizard? A mech? An alien invader? With King of Tokyo you can take over a Japanese metropolis with your giant monster and, with the right moves, take out other players with your spiky tail or teeth. A great game for middle-schoolers, it offers some of the fun of card gaming with board game play.

 

Codenames

Codenames is a wildly different experience with each new group of players. You lay out a grid of cards, each with a single word on it. You pair off two-versus-two, with one player being the clue giver, the other being the guesser. The clue giver is trying to get their guesser to pick as many of their team’s cards as they can each turn, but there’s a catch: the clue giver can only say one word per turn… and there are sudden-death cards on the board. You’re looking for single words that can connect multiple cards without misleading the guesser into tapping any of the other team’s cards or, worse yet, the sudden-death killer card. Lead the guesser astray, and your team’s done for. There are all sorts of variations of Codenames at this point — including a picture-heavy Disney remix for when the littles want to join in.

Anomia

You pull a card. It has a seemingly random symbol on it, along with a category — like “Shoe brand,” or “Occupation,” or “Pop Star.” Look at the top cards of the other players at the table; does your symbol match anyone else’s symbol? If so, the race is on. The first one who can name something, anything that fits the category wins that round. It sounds simple, but it’ll leave your brain exhausted and your body sore from laughter.

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Bohnanza

In this German card game, you’re dealt a hand of assorted types of beans (some more rare than others) that you must play in the order they’re dealt. You have a limited number of fields in which to plant your beans, which you can then harvest for money. The trick of the game is that as new cards/beans are introduced, they must be planted or harvested by someone at the table for play to resume, so a big part of the game is negotiating bean trades with other players to make the most of your own hand. The player with the most money at the end of the game wins. If you enjoy haggling and negotiating (and goofy cartoon beans) this game is for you.

Waldschattenspiel

I’ve talked about this game before on TC, but this version, in the original German, is one of the coolest versions. The gameplay is simple: you turn off the lights in the room and hide little elves behind tall trees. Then one player moves her candle through the forest, trying to catch the elves at play. Once all the elves are caught — or all the elves hide in one spot — you win. The best part? Fire!

Viticulture

Given that most games are played while drinking a bottle or two of wine, Viticulture is the drinking person’s board game. You and your family run a small winery in Tuscany and you have to grow your business by picking grapes, making wine and getting visitors. Another building game with a great premise.

 

Secret Hitler

Secret Hitler is a game about the rise of fascism. While it’s not a light-hearted game, it does teach us about the fragility of political systems and what it takes to go from a peaceable state to a fascist one overnight. Influenced by Werewolf/Mafia style games, one player is Secret Hitler and another player is a secret Nazi. Together, without telling the other players, they must work together to convert the government to fascism. It’s well worth a look if you like thinking games.

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Spaceteam

Spaceteam is a cooperative game — you win, or lose, together. But just because it’s cooperative doesn’t mean it’s a calm, friendly hang. Oh, there will be yelling.

Spaceteam has you working together to repair your failing spacecraft. Everyone at the table has a set of goals they need to accomplish… but everyone else at the table has their own goals, too. And everyone seemingly has the wrong tools. Gather all the tools you need from other players, and that goal is complete… but everyone else needs their tools too, and with the timer counting down, you’re going to have to all go simultaneously if you’re going to survive. It’s frantic and ridiculous and OH MY GOD SOMEONE PASS ME THE CENTRIFUGAL DISPOSAL, I’VE ASKED 15 TIMES! Oh, nevermind, I have it right here.

Carcassonne

Carcassonne is one of my absolute favorite games. This city-building game lets little ones take part in the fun and, because it is so visually arresting, it can engross you for hours. This massive box includes almost all the expansions. I cannot recommend this game more highly.

 

 

Twilight Struggle

This massive game lets you play the USSR vs. the USA in a struggle for world domination. Designed to simulate the Cold War — I know, exciting! — it’s actually a truly engrossing title and well worth a look.

Scythe

Scythe is a sprawling game that uses cards and miniatures to describe a world of alternate reality. As a farmer in this broken world you must rebuild your armies, reclaim lost lands and start up the great gears of progress. It’s a long game — about 115 minutes — but it has gotten rave reviews.

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Gnomes at Night

Gnomes at Night is a cooperative kids game with a twist. One player sees a maze while other player cannot. The players work together to move through the maze to the treasure, encouraging communications and interaction that online games lack.

 

 

Risk Legacy

Risk Legacy offers all the complexity of Risk with even more complexity! In each game the board and pieces themselves change, allowing you to create long stretches of gameplay that promise repeat bouts. While old-fashioned Risk is a still a classic, this amazing game is a great expansion to that military world.

Last Night On Earth

Last Night on Earth is a board game with multiple playthrough scenarios. Players get to choose if they play as humans or zombies. If you’re on the human team, you get to pick a hero card before the game starts. You then move around the board to solve the scenario — for instance, you can be defending a manor, escaping a location and more. Zombies will get in the way and you’ll have to find the best weapon to get rid of them.

 

Gloomhaven 

If your friends and family take board gaming serious, consider Gloomhaven. It’s a good bit more intense (and, at $140+, more expensive) than anything listed above, but it’s one of the most popular games of the year for a reason. A ready-to-play dungeon crawler in a box, it’s got thousands of cards, dozens of playable classes and nearly 100 playable scenarios. You’ll want to lock in a group of friends who can meet up regularly to play this one before diving in — but if you can do that, you’re in for something special.

Hero Realms

Hero Realms is like a trading card game (think Magic: The Gathering) but also quite different. If you hate buying card packs to build the best deck ever, Hero Realms is for you — everything is already in the box. Each player starts with just a handful of cards and slowly builds a deck by acquiring cards from the central pile. After that, it’s a matter of combining the effects of multiple cards to attack your opponent and destroy their heroes.

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Cuphead expansion pack review: As good as DLC gets

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Enlarge / In the new expansion pack The Delicious Last Course, Miss Chalice makes three.

Studio MDHR

Some people will look at an expansion pack like Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course and make up their minds after a single glance. This $8 add-on’s beautiful brutality follows the same path as the original 2017 game Cuphead, a notoriously tough descendant of the Mega Man school of game design. Maybe you love playing games that are as beautiful as they are difficult. Maybe you don’t.

I’m here to talk about Last Course because I might be a lot like you. I’m not Last Course‘s target audience. I never beat the original Cuphead. I have contended that a tough game like this is easier for me to watch than it is to play. But when I saw the expansion’s hands-on demo at this month’s Summer Game Fest Play Days, I shrugged my shoulders, grabbed a gamepad, and gave it a shot. Might as well occupy myself between other scheduled game demos, I thought.

And then I fell in love. For whatever reason, the demo I played, and my subsequent completion of Last Course‘s “normal” difficulty content, grabbed me and wouldn’t let go—which is why I’m compelled to recommend picking it up.

Another island getaway—with useful new abilities

Miss Chalice can only join the battle when she tricks one of the original main characters to chomp on a magical cookie. This temporarily sends someone else to a ghost realm so that she can join in. The trio goes on a quest to bring her back to life for good, no tricky cookies required.
Enlarge / Miss Chalice can only join the battle when she tricks one of the original main characters to chomp on a magical cookie. This temporarily sends someone else to a ghost realm so that she can join in. The trio goes on a quest to bring her back to life for good, no tricky cookies required.

Studio MDHR

Like many other classic “expansion packs,” Last Course requires owning the original game (which is conveniently on sale at most digital download storefronts between this article’s publication date and July 7) and bolts new content onto Cuphead‘s 2D action foundation. The original game divided its 18 boss battles across three “islands” of content, and Last Course adds, among other things, six bosses on a brand-new island.

Miss Chalice's double-jump ability will be useful to get away from those pesky gnomes gathering at her feet.
Enlarge / Miss Chalice’s double-jump ability will be useful to get away from those pesky gnomes gathering at her feet.

Studio MDHR

It also introduces a third playable character, named Miss Chalice, and she appears when you equip a Chalice-specific “charm” on either existing character (Cuphead or Mugman). She comes with four points of health by default (compared to three points for the other characters) and three unique abilities: an invincible dodge-roll, a double-jump, and a parry dash. (The latter gives players a larger “hitbox” when attempting the game’s crucial parry maneuver, making it easier to counter enemies’ specially colored attacks.) Since she must be activated as a charm, Miss Chalice can’t equip other charms in the game, and in two-player co-op sessions, only one person can turn their character into Miss Chalice.

As I made clear earlier, I’m not a Cuphead pro, so I was delighted by the new, novice-friendly character when I first tested the game at Summer Game Fest. All of her special abilities are tuned for higher maneuverability to help you contend with the chaos that is an average Cuphead boss battle, and in addition to her extra point of health, she also has a custom “super attack” option that doesn’t do any damage. Instead, it gives her an additional, temporary point of health, and this can be regenerated during long, brutal boss fights. Once she’s unlocked, she’s available in the original campaign’s levels as well, which makes her a nifty entry point for anyone like me who never beat the original campaign.

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Thanks to fans, the weirdest official Doom game is now playable on Windows

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Enlarge / A seemingly lost turn-based version of Doom RPG is now fully playable on modern Windows PCs, thanks to efforts from the Doom reverse-engineering community.

id Software

The creators of the Doom series have presented plenty of official and unofficial historical retrospectives, but these often leave out the weirdest official Doom game ever made: Doom RPG.

Even id Software’s official “Year of Doom” museum at E3 2019 left this 2005 game unchronicled. That’s a shame, because it was a phenomenal example of id once again proving itself a master of technically impressive gaming on a power-limited platform. And platforms don’t get more limited on a power or compatibility basis than the pre-iPhone wave of candy bar handsets, which Doom RPG has been locked to since its original mid-’00s launch. You may think that “turn-based Doom” sounds weird, but Doom RPG stood out as a clever and fun series twist to the first-person shooter formula.

Its abandonment to ancient phones changes today thanks to the reverse-engineering efforts of GEC.inc, a Costa Rica-based collective of at least three developers. On Wednesday, the group released a Windows port of the game based on their work on the original game’s BREW version (a Qualcomm-developed API meant for its wave of mobile phones from 2001 and beyond).

Time for T9

Forget the clunky world of ancient mobile phone platform emulation. <em>Doom RPG</em> feels way better in this week's new native port.
Enlarge / Forget the clunky world of ancient mobile phone platform emulation. Doom RPG feels way better in this week’s new native port.

id Software

GEC.inc’s freely downloadable Windows port has no copyrighted assets and won’t work without the game’s original files. (The same typically goes for other major community efforts that revolve around the reverse-engineering of classic games.) That’s where this whole thing gets tricky, as legitimate access to the game in 2022 is incredibly unlikely. Access requires owning a compatible mid-’00s phone on which the game was purchased, likely via an ancient game-sales marketplace that no longer exists, then extracting the game’s original files from that phone—and that’s assuming its original hardware is functioning and hasn’t been damaged by, say, a slowly expanding lithium-ion battery. id Software has never re-released the game outside of its original platforms (BREW, J2ME), arguably because EA Mobile got a stake in the game after acquiring original publisher Jamdat Mobile.

Whether you’re among the very few to have a preserved, working phone with a purchased copy of the game’s BREW port or you figure out another way to somehow access Doom RPG, you can dump the original game’s data into GEC.inc’s custom asset-translation executable. Ars Technica can confirm that this process is painless and leads to near-instant gameplay on Windows.

The port’s interface is admittedly barebones, made up of menus that require a keyboard to pick through, and its incompatibility with mice and touchpads is startling at first. It’s a hard crash back to the early ’00s to remember that, yes, this game was designed for T9 button arrays by default. Thankfully, the port plays nicely enough with Windows to make it easy to bind an Xinput gamepad via its default menus if you prefer a gamepad (or something like Steam Deck) over the usual WASD options.

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Meta sparks anger by charging for VR apps

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Enlarge / BURLINGAME, CALIFORNIA – MAY 04: Meta employee Ryan Carter (L) helps a member of the media with an Oculus virtual reality headset demonstration during a media preview of the new Meta Store on May 04, 2022 in Burlingame, California. Meta is set to open its first physical retail store on May 9. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Meta is facing a growing backlash for the charges imposed on apps created for its virtual reality headsets, as developers complain about the commercial terms set around futuristic devices that the company hopes will help create a multibillion-dollar consumer market.

Facebook’s parent has pledged to spend $10 billion a year over the next decade on the “metaverse,” a much-hyped concept denoting an immersive virtual world filled with avatars.

The investment is spurred by a desire to own the next computing platform and avoid being trapped by rules set by Big Tech rivals, as it has been by Apple and Google with their respective mobile app stores.

Apple is expected to enter the market by releasing a set of augmented reality glasses as early as this year, while Microsoft is developing services using its HoloLens virtual reality headset.

But several developers told the Financial Times of their frustration that Meta, which is seen as having an early lead in a nascent market, has insisted on a charging model for its VR app store similar to what exists today on smartphones. This is despite Meta chief Mark Zuckerberg being strongly critical in the past of charging policies on existing mobile app stores.

“Don’t confuse marketing with reality—it’s good marketing to pick on Apple. But it doesn’t mean Meta won’t do the exact same thing,” said Seth Siegel, global head of AI and cyber security at Infosys Consulting. “There is no impetus for them to be better.”

The “Quest Store” for Meta’s Quest 2, by far the most popular VR headset on the market, takes a 30 percent cut from digital purchases and charges 15-30 percent on subscriptions, similar to the fees charged by Apple and Android.

“Undoubtedly there are services provided—they build amazing hardware and provide store services,” said Daniel Sproll, chief executive of Realities.io, an immersive realities start-up behind the VR game Puzzling Places.

“But the problem is that it feels like everybody agreed on this 30 percent and that’s what we’re stuck with. It doesn’t feel like there’s any competition. The Chinese companies coming out with headsets are the same. Why would they change it?”

Meta defended its policies, pointing out that unlike iPhone owners, Quest users can install apps outside its official store through SideQuest, a third-party app store, or make use of App Lab, its less restricted, more experimental app store.

“We want to foster choice and competition in the VR ecosystem,” Meta said. “And it’s working—our efforts have produced a material financial return for developers: as we announced earlier this year, over $1 billion has been spent on games and apps in the Meta Quest Store.”

Developers welcome these alternatives but say their impact is limited. SideQuest has been downloaded just 396,000 times, versus 19 million for the Oculus app, according to Sensor Tower. App Lab, meanwhile, still takes a 30 percent cut of purchases.

Zuckerberg has previously complained of Apple’s “monopoly rents” and called out its “unique stranglehold as a gatekeeper on what gets on phones,” in reference to the App Store’s approval and curation processes.

That led Apple to accuse Meta of “hypocrisy” when the Oculus headset maker announced in April that Horizon Worlds, its “social VR experience,” would charge a 17.5 percent “platform fee” on top of its 30 percent tax on digital purchases.

Apple added: “It goes to show that while they seek to use Apple’s platform for free, they happily take from the creators and small businesses that use their own.”

Until Apple and others enter the VR market in a more concerted manner, developers also say Meta has the ability to play kingmaker with apps by fast-tracking some and delaying others.

Some titles are relegated to its experimental App Lab store, while a few of the best titles—the fitness games BeatSaber and Supernatural, for instance—have been acquired by Meta.

Another point of friction with developers is Meta’s shift on how “open” its VR app store will be.

Chris Pruett, Meta’s content ecosystem director, has said the VR team engaged in “a knockdown, drag-out debate, for years” over whether the app store should allow developers to upload their content with relatively few restrictions, or whether apps should be “curated” by the company with far more checks—similar to Apple’s approach to its mobile app store.

Pruett said Meta found that lax standards resulted in too many users being frustrated by low-quality content, so the company has opted to play more of a gatekeeper role. But developers said the resulting barriers could lack transparency.

“Getting something on the Quest store is painful,” said Lyron Bentovim, chief executive of the Glimpse Group, an immersive experiences group. “It’s significantly worse than getting on Apple or Android stores.”

Rooom, a Metaverse platform for 3D events, made it to the Quest store after nine months of back and forth, whereas the same process with Apple took less than two weeks, said chief information officer Sebastian Gottschlich.

Devon Copley, chief executive of Avatour, a virtual meeting company, said he had posted questions to the indie developer message board for support that “just go completely unanswered.”

Developer relations at Meta was “completely AWOL,” Copley said. “It’s really frustrating because the hardware development is amazing, the hardware platform is fantastic, and they’re doing great things. But their developer engagement is a travesty.”

© 2022 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.

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