The 5 best party board games that can save the holidays
Even those that shy away from deep strategy or careful analysis can get down with a party game. These are the types of games that are universally embraced, providing raucous joy, vibrant conversation, and wide smiles. They require only a modicum of effort and just a sliver of free time. They save a lackluster family gathering and turn it into something grand. These are the five best party board games.
Codenames is a layup on a list like this. This is a word game from hobbyist designer Vlaada Chvátil that found mainstream success and spawned several spinoffs, such as Codenames: Pictures, Codenames: Disney Family Edition, and Codenames: Duet. It attained widespread appeal due to its simple ruleset, familiar team-based format, and penchant for making participants feel clever.
In front of each team is a group of cards laid out in a grid. These have common words on them such as “hose” and “winter.” A leader from each team is secretly given a unique randomized grouping of these words, and they must get their team to guess all of their cards before their opponents guess theirs. The idea is to give one-word clues that link multiple cards together — such as “stark” to get your team to guess “winter” and “bare.” The slyest of clues links three or even four cards.
While it doesn’t always hit full throttle, Codenames at its best offers desperate, high-stakes guessing that can produce standup moments. Those moments where people jump out of their seats and trade exuberant high-fives, perhaps talking a little smack to their downtrodden foes. It doesn’t hurt that it’s cheap, small, and easy to teach.
Publisher CMYK’s Wavelength is an unusual game. It has immense presence with a large widget that sits at the center of the table. This tower is effectively a dial that provides a random point on a spectrum between A and B. Those two extremes are dictated by a drawn card and include topics such as “funny” and “not funny” or “terrible person” and “good person.” There are hundreds of them. A clue-giver must then provide an example that is intended to lead the group to the proper point on the spectrum.
For instance, let’s go with the funny/not funny prompt. If the point was leaning just ever so slightly toward funny, you may give a clue such as “squirting hot sauce in your eye.” That’s painful to think about, but it’s also going to induce a giggle or two. The closer you lead the group to the correct position on the spectrum the more points you score.
Discussion can get messy. There’s a lot of latitude in clues and the subsequent interpretation. The discussion that arises in analyzing the clue-giver’s subjectivity can result in brilliant instances of introspection and debate. These are the moments that are special, the moments the design fosters and the interesting discussion that tumbles out of a simple party game. It’s really what the entire genre is predicated on, and Wavelength is one of the best at developing those interactions.
Time’s Up: Title Recall
Time’s Up: Title Recall is a spinoff of 1999’s very successful Time’s Up. This is a boisterous guessing game where players pair off into teams of two, alternating between giving clues and guessing the answer. Title Recall in particular is focused on the titles of books, films, and songs, attaining a wider pop cultural appeal.
There’s an animated eccentricity to this game that is electric. The same pool of title cards is used over three rounds, with each subsequent phase getting more difficult. Initially, you can offer any clues except words that are in the title itself. The second round you can only provide a single word. And in the final sequence of play, you may only pantomime.
It sounds exceedingly difficult — and it can be — but the trick is that players will rely on a memory element of recalling cards from previous rounds. You’re also encouraged to strategically begin incorporating physical actions in preparation for that difficult final stage. In the second round, for instance, you may point at your side while offering “Shakira” in an attempt to get your teammate to guess “Hips Don’t Lie.” Then in the final sequence your teammate may immediately recall the title when you repeat the hip motion.
It’s magical. People that are straight-laced and rigid will come out of their shells, rushing to succeed with as many titles as possible and pantomiming actions that are ludicrous and embarrassing. There is a subtle degree of strategy in foreshadowing those physical actions and how you connect with your teammate. It offers a great deal of satisfaction and feels like a timeless activity that will endure far beyond the lifespan of most party games.
Cryptography is the type of alluring puzzle that translates incredibly well to the tabletop. Decrypto proves this, offering an exceptional party game of decoding secret messages. It’s the type of activity that provokes an emotional response, making participants feel devious and clever.
Two groups each possess their own screen with four pockets. Cards are tucked into each numbered slot and may only be viewed by the members on the same team. Then a player receives a card, prompting them to push their team into guessing the right three-digit code. To do this, clues are given that map to each word in one of the slots. It flirts with the line between frivolous word association and cerebral contemplation.
The trick is that the opposing team can begin to guess your code sequence and perhaps steal the game out from under you. It’s a tense affair where clues are given obliquely, attempting a level of opacity that does not make for an obvious steal. It forces the group to work their minds in interesting ways. Decrypto is a very unusual party game that promises dramatic highs and lows. It captures a light sense of espionage and the payoff is tremendous.
Just One turns the party-game concept upside down. Instead of the standard competitive team-versus-team format, it puts everyone on the same side. Cooperative board games have risen to immense popularity in recent years, so it’s only right that the party game genre receives a very strong contender.
The strongest asset is that it’s simple and easy to participate. A random word is selected and one player is kept in the dark. The rest must then write a one word clue on a dry erase placard. All of these clues are shown to the guesser, and they have one shot to nail the key word.
But there’s a wrinkle. If any players write the same word, then those clues are eliminated and never seen. It’s a wonderful wrinkle that causes you to think outside the box and manage risk. If the word is “yellow” and two people write “color,” then you may very well be doomed. But as you’re sitting there, trying to determine the best possible word to write, you wonder if everyone else is overthinking and not a single person will write “color.” There’s a self-inflicted mind game going on, and legitimate strategy and critical thinking may help the group prevail.
There is a reason Just One won the 2019 Spiel des Jahres, the prestigious German award for board game of the year. This is one of the best party games ever designed. It fosters cooperation, stirs cognitive excitement, and affords a level of creativity many games only aspire to.