Giving Thanks With Gaming

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A week from now, Americans will be sitting down at Thanksgiving and joining with friends and family around tables in shared gratitude. Actually, Thanksgiving put this way sounds like what I do every week with dice, cards and game pieces instead of turkey and side dishes.

The time after Thanksgiving dinner was traditionally a time for games at my grandparents house when I was a kid. After the dishes were cleared, some of my uncles would sack out on the couch in front of a football game on TV but I always lingered at the table where the real games were happening. My grandmother, great aunts, aunts and mom would hold court at one end of the room-length table with a few rounds of Bridge and family gossip. At the far end, some other aunts and uncles hauled out a well worn Scrabble board and played a steady game of vocabulary one-upmanship. Some of my cousins would spread around on the hallway floor for games of War, Parcheesi and Hi Ho! Cherry-O. As the eldest of my many cousins, I always sat at the big table for dinner and there I mostly remained watching the adults play their games.

This year I’m particularly grateful to be hosting my brother and his family for our holiday shared meal. My brother is my oldest gaming partner dating back to the 70s and 80s when we first discovered oddly-shaped dice and little metal miniatures to paint. We are both fortunate to have wonderfully understanding wives who who have partnered with us in raising a second generation of tabletop gamers, and all of us will be present in Brooklyn for Thanksgiving this year.

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After dinner games

Our tastes in games range wider than the traditional board and card games favored by the older generations in my family. Even so, getting four adults and five kids (boys and girls ranging in ages 10 to 16) all engaged in the same game today remains a challenge. Our interests and commitments vary, but here are few which have worked for our family’s diverse audience over holidays past.

  • Dixit makes for a light but engaging game right after dinner with the various family members pairing off into story-telling and story-deciphering teams. This is a great multi-generational game to play since the kids can just as easily out-baffle the adults by using the key game component they always carry — their imaginations.
  • Guillotine switches the tone and ratchets up the humor for the Francophiles and budding historians with a twisted sense of humor. Nothing says family time at our dinner table like the beheading of aristocratic one-percenters during the French Revolution, all played with goofy cards. It might be a bit too off-color for some families, but all our kids dig this one.
  • For the classically-romantic, multiple hands of Love Letter makes for a royal crowd pleaser as cards are quickly played in a quest to win the heart of the fair princess. Lest that sound overly mushy, there’s a ton of game wrapped up in just a few cards which easily play anywhere. The Batman version will also make a first appearance this year, switching up courtiers with DC Comics heroes and super villains.
  • One Night: Ultimate Werewolf seems to fit the natural progression from dinner into evening. My extended family can be a bit on the boisterous side, so squaring off as villagers versus a werewolf threat in tense 10-minute games. I’ve heard from a lot of people who love playing this one with family around the holidays, since it inevitably brings out the liars and agendas in the crowd.
  • As the evening rolls on well past dessert, a couple pots of coffee and a few drinks, some of the kids and adults will inevitably drift away from the table. For those of us who remain, a rowdy round of our favorite Letters From Whitechapel makes for a grand late night hunt for Jack The Ripper. Set on the dark streets of Victorian London prowled by cops, prostitutes and a famed serial killer, a group of players team up to hunt for Jack as he secretly makes his way home. If the theme doesn’t seem to fit the holiday spirit for you, think of it as a way for you and your family and friends to work together in one of the better cat-and-mouse games I’ve ever played.

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Black Friday games

The Friday after Thanksgiving is a day off for many, and hoards of Americans are up early, out the door and racking-up credit card debt with overly-publicized Black Friday shopping. Since I do everything I can to avoid the masses over the holiday weekend, the Friday after our family feast presents a rare full day to be filled with gaming. This year it’s also my visiting brother’s birthday, and celebrating the day is a great opportunity to pull a few a few of the larger board games off my shelf. I usually max out at about 2-3 players in these games, so having up to five players around the table will be a treat.

  • Civilization: The Boardgame is one of the granddaddys of civilization-building games. The game built on the innovations of the original Civilization games with a progressive “tech-tree” mechanic where technologies build within a historical timeline over thousands of years. Players march toward victory through different paths of warfare, culture and technology, allowing each player to work to their strengths and interact with human history along the way. With the Fame and Fortune and Wisdom and Warfare expansions, more possibilities and a fifth player are added into a game which stretches across the eons and a few hours of play.
  • Slaughtering the undead through an apocalyptic wasteland again doesn’t sound very holiday-like, Zombicide is a great collaborative game of survivors versus mobs of zombies. Like my formative dungeon-crawling adventures with Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s, Zombicide follows a party as they collect weapons and other survival items, level up in ability and accomplish missions. The game quickly goes from bad to worse over a couple hours, and working together as a group is the only way of surviving.
  • One of my favorite multi-hour games is Arkham Horror, based on the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. This is a big, beautiful game set in a sleepy New England Town inexplicably invaded by netherworld beasts. Adventurers team up, acquire weapons and magical items and seek to destroy the beasts who threaten the world with dominating insanity and destruction. Events, monsters and player characters all come with a deep narrative that unfolds throughout the game, taking this game off the board into a terrifically eerie role-playing experience.
  • While not a long time commitment, the card-driven Marvel Superheroes Legendary is best played in a big group of superhero players teaming up to foil the evil plans of an arch nemesis. Another collaborative game, Legendary really “feels” like a comic book to me with various hero characters growing in power and skills which play off the other characters on their team, whether it be the X-Men, Avengers or Fantastic Four. My brother and I have been huge Marvel Comics fans for decades, so getting into a game which has characters leaping from the page to the table is still as much of a thrill for us in our late 40s as it is for our kids.

Every family has their holiday traditions, and each generation builds on these and creates their own new traditions. Games remain a constant thread for my extended family through the holiday run from Thanksgiving through Christmas. The themes, mechanics and mechanics may have changed over the years, but at the root of our gaming is the chance to spend a few hours playing with those closest to us. This Thanksgiving, step away from the screens, clear the table and find your own gaming tradition with your family and friends.

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New Game Weekend: Guillotine

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The French Revolution is a period where one can typically find little to laugh about, unless the mass slaughter of tens-of-thousands of people tickles your historical fancy or massages your deep-seeded hate for European aristocracy. The bloody period did much to shape modern world politics, abolished slavery in French-held territories and opened the door to the rise to Napoleon Bonaparte, but the popular symbol that lingers in most people’s minds is the guillotine.

Developed as an efficient and humane manner of execution, the guillotine was a perfect symbol for the Age of Enlightenment-fuelled violence of the French Revolution — a combination of vicious violence and modern invention. Executions of King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette and countless other nobles and members of the ruling class were public events during the Reign of Terror of the Revolutionary period. Ironically, Maximilien Robespierre, one of the architects of the Reign of Terror would also meet his death at the guillotine when public sentiment turned against the violence of the era. Beyond the French Revolution, the guillotine would remain a prominent mode of execution for prisoners worldwide and a mode of terror for governments such as the German Third Reich well into the late 20th-century.

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Guillotine, the 1998 card game from Wizards of the Coast, uses the Reign of Terror as a jumping-off point for an unlikely comical, fast-paced and enjoyable game. Playing in about a half-hour, the game is framed over three days (or rounds) of executions with a steady flow of nobles lined up ready to be rid of their heads. Players score points through the value of nobles executed, playing cards to garner extra points, bump valuable nobles to the head of the line and steal from other players along the way.

The game is set up with an initial queue of 12 nobles lined up before a cardboard standing guillotine. Players are then dealt five Action cards to begin. Each player’s turn involves three steps. First, a player may use an Action card as an option. Next, the player collects the Noble at the front of the line, adding the card to their pool of victims points in front of them. Finally, the player draws back an Action card from the pile.

Once a line of nobles is eliminated at the guillotine, the day ends and the next row of 12 nobles is dealt out with play continuing in turn. After the second day and a third day of executions is complete, players score points from their collected noble victims and the highest score wins.

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Within the game there’s a surprising amount of strategy as players not only collect their own most valuable victims, but also do what they can to prevent their opponents from doing the same through play of Action cards.

Action cards bump nobles up and down the line, reshuffle the line, cause other players to lose nobles they’ve collected and rescue potentially-high-scoring nobles from a certain death.

Potential Noble victims come in color-coded cards: Civic (green), Royalty (purple),  Church (blue), Military (red) and Negative (grey). The grey-colored cards have negative point values, killing innocents or other crowd favorites. Collecting cards in certain color may result in additional bonus points made active by playing specific Action cards. Collecting combinations of nobles like the Count and Countess together or multiple Palace Guards can also reap bonus points.

Managing your own Action cards, your pool of scored nobles and the line of upcoming noble victims creates a great deal of dynamic play within the simple card-based mechanic. The card illustrations are comical and include a number of historical personalities such as Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and Robespierre himself, offering a mildly-educational element to the broadly-historical game.

While execution is a grisly theme, older kids will find the game to be entertaining when played along with a group of adults. Like a lot of historically-themed gaming, the nastier bits are pretty well glossed-over in Guillotine. The game does provide some great entertainment for a fast and fun Reign of Terror of your own as the dishes are cleared, the desserts are gobbled up and the last of the French noble class is once again marched to their doom.