Ho-ho-hello there fine traveller. Have you been searching for that special Christmas tingle? Well rest assured, you are not alone. We’ve been rummaging through the range of seasonal board games that appear in UK High Street shops around this time of year - and by goodness there are a lot of terrible-looking offerings around.
Among the riot of tinsel and cheery plastic, it can be hard to tell which board games might be the perfect Christmas gifts for board gamers and which are just brightly-coloured coal. Not everything makes for one of the best family games to play at Christmas instead of Monopoly, after all.
To help you sort the Christmas crackers from crappers, we sat down with a selection of the most dubious festive candidates and discovered mediocrity, mirth and bleak midwinter misery.
Reindeer Ring Toss
When in doubt, it’s best to start as daft as possible. Reindeer Ring Toss - also called Oh Deer, or Inflatable Reindeer Antler Game - certainly fits the bill. Inflate comedy hat, put it on, and everyone else tries to toss rings onto the horns. That’s the game.
It’s deeply silly and childish, the kind of cheap tat you might find in a pound shop somewhere. It also turns out to be the best kind of Christmas game; it’s simple and tacky and immediate fun. There’s constant reward to playing. If you make a toss and land the shot? Swell with pride as everyone cheers! If you miss? Well, throwing silly rings at someone is never not satisfying.
The game is so light that, without thinking, we found ourselves making up new rules. Sure, landing a ring on someone standing still is impressive, but how about throwing two rings simultaneously onto a moving target? It’s all just so frivolous that you find yourself embracing the unabashed game of it all.
Is it a ‘good’ game? Probably not. But I don’t care and nor should you. It’s so much fun to play.
£14.99, found in various local game shops - we got ours from Travelling Man - and on Amazon UK
Throwing dice and making snowmen on your table? It sounded a bit dull to me. How wrong I was. Rolling dice to build the next bit of your snowman is fine I guess, but with snowballs and wild dice we found real joy in every five-minute game.
Every time you flick a snowball dice at another player’s tottering snowman, you find yourself giggling like a mischievous child. Trying to steer the tottering tower of a complete snowman with a single finger is an exercise in errors as the slippery head falls off again, and trying to rebuild a broken snowman while dice fly all across the table is giddy mayhem.
The fact that everyone rolls and plays in real time is what makes this little game sing. It turns every round into messy chaotic fun, filled with constant snap decisions as every player tries to out-snowman each other. The short play time is a gift as well, letting you roll, flick and slide for a quick ten minutes before either going again, or moving on.
For us, Snowman Dice is firmly in the present pile.
Time for a seasonal quiz! I knew at least one quiz game was going to appear on our journey; they plague the seasonal board game shelves like little elves of tedium. Often touted as a chance to get cheerily competitive, they almost always fall flat.
That said, we had an unexpectedly good time with Santa Banter. Each round only lasts 30 seconds per team, giving the game a quickfire nature that keeps everyone engaged as players all scramble to think of what Christmas-related word rhymes with ‘oatmeal’. (The answer is snowmobile, obviously.)
The rapidly rotating types of quiz gives both the cinnamon-spice of variety, and a way to avoid frustration. If (like me) you find the ‘solve it’ round really hard, not to worry: in a minute you’ll be playing charades to find rhymes for ‘mince pie’ instead.
One of the real secrets of this game is the tension of trying to find matching pairs. Breaking up the raucous competition of each short round is the breathless silence as your team gets maybe just one or two chances to find a rhyming pair among the mystery cards. It’s a brilliant pressure cooker that bubbles along under the game, making it feel like every guess counts.
I went in expecting twee little quiz, but this game is actually a great little package of frenetic fun. Put under the tree for Christmas glee.
Mince Spies is a little box that contains 18 coasters and… that’s all? This game looks rubbish. But ho-ho-hey now, there’s something hidden here; each coaster has a secret dinner mission for you to carry out.
Now, we didn’t know we would need to cook an entire Christmas dinner to play this properly, so (in what may become a very unsuccessful Christmas tradition) we made do with dry noodles, some clementines and a tin of baked beans.
Over the course of our ‘dinner’ we knew that everyone had some absurd task to carry out without it being identified. Of course, one of the best ways to hide an obviously silly thing is by doing a lot of silly things. Christmas dinner becomes extremely surreal when in the middle of conversation your auntie keeps stealing food from your plate and your best friend insists on calling you by the names of different reindeer. Is this a normal level of absurdity? Is it a ploy? You only get one guess at the end, so everything becomes deliciously suspect and the entire meal becomes theatre. I do need to point out that a surprising number of the missions are based around traditional Christmassy foods (like brussel sprouts), so if you don’t have those you might be a bit scuppered. As we were.
All in all, it’s a fairly good game. But since it’s not nearly as good as Don’t Get Got you should probably just play that instead. Oh well.
The Sock Game
The Sock Game sounds like something invented by a dozy designer looking at Christmas stockings above a fireplace and thinking “What if getting things out of the stocking was a game?” It’s the kind of hare-brained concept that I thought might just be a stroke of genius.
Turns out that while it’s true that furiously jamming your hand into a sock to rummage around for a hair-tie or a button is quite funny at first, the novelty runs out really, really fast. By round two we’d mostly worked out the feel of most of the fiddly items in the sock - which it turns out is the main appeal of the game. Fumbling past chess pieces and toy cars isn’t fun when you know what everything is. There’s no mystery or excitement, we just became people racing to find an item in a sock, in the same way that you might ‘race’ to queue in a supermarket; technically you want to be first in line, but it’s not what you’d call fun.
So this game is not just socks but pants. It has surprisingly high-quality components, but when the best part of this game is the striped socks it comes with it’s not a good sign. No-one wants socks for Christmas.
Scrooge: The Board Game
Available in some local game stores or you can buy it direct
To finish us off, we have an honest-to-goodness board game, complete with little characters, dice, piles of cards and even paper money - all wrapped up in a Dickensian theme to boot. Maybe this is the gold star to crown our Christmas journey?
No. Scrooge: The Board Game is a cruel christmas trick worthy of the man himself. In less time than it took us to set up the board, this game started raising eyebrows. On turn one I land on jail a la Monopoly. It’s not called that, but that’s what it is. I lose a turn or some money. The next player goes. They draw a card and… also lose some money. And so it goes on. You lose money. Or move backwards. Or maybe gain some money? Or swap places. But you don’t get to choose to do any of these things.
By turn three, everyone at our table had the same expression of pained bewilderment as we tried to work out where the game is. For a board game so basic, Scrooge is baffling. I had to read the rules twice to understand them, and we were still checking it all through play.
Twenty minutes in it’s clear that every player wants to stop because we are miserable. After half an hour, every single player has said they wish we were playing Monopoly at least once. After fourty minutes we became determined to see the end in a last desperate hope that there is some sort of trick at the end. Of course, there is nothing.
In a horrible way this game is a cardboard simulation of Scrooge-like rule: a place where you constantly lose your money for no reason and have no autonomy over your future. We left the game demoralised, disheartened and miserable.
To give an idea of the depths this game took us to, I recently brought out the game again while writing this and one of my players physically flinched when they saw it on the kitchen table. It is no exaggeration to say that Scrooge: The Board Game is the worst board game I have ever played.
Happy holidays everyone!