Five great tabletop games to play over the holidays

Nothing wrong with a little Settlers of Catan to while away the winter evenings, but if you're after something a little more original, may we recommend one of these?

My high-school friend Luc once told me that during the claustrophobic blizzards of his native New Brunswick, families would play roleplaying games (notably Dungeons & Dragons) to hang out. And why not? Tabletop roleplaying games are specifically designed to make groups of people interact in new ways. The co-creation of stories gives people something new to share, to discuss, and about which to care. Players of RPGs can learn from and about each other in new ways. And the hobby certainly provides more than enough fodder to fill awkward dinner table silences.

So this holiday season, why not try a roleplaying game with your kith and kin?

Photo source: Shut Up & Sit Down

Blades in the Dark

If you’ve ever fantasized about conducting an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist where your ingeniously-laid plans fall into place like dominoes, John Harper’s Blades in the Dark is the game for you. Bonus: the game is set in a haunted, industrial-era city shrouded in perpetual darkness and surrounded by a lightning-fence powered by the blood of whale-demons, so what’s not to love? 

In Blades in the Dark, you play a small gang of ne’er-do-wells clawing their way up a criminal hierarchy. Expect all the tropes: midnight robberies, rooftop chases, gang warfare and a corrupt political elite out to get you. After all, roleplaying games thrive on genre tropes. But Harper has also painted a rich, unique setting swirling with haunted, Gothic color: picture electroplasmic ammunition used to hunt ghosts, an ink-black sea with its own, mysterious constellation of stars buried beneath the waves, and a thriving underground trade in distilled spirit essence collected from the newly dead.

The beauty of the game, however, lies in how it makes you feel exactly like a smooth, veteran criminal mastermind. Instead of making you spend interminable hours coming up with the perfect plan for a heist, the game instead plops you right in the middle of the action. If anything untoward occurs, it lets you insert flashback scenes where you can describe in loving detail just how you’ve prepared a contingency plan for this very circumstance. 

With elegant mechanics and a fascinating setting, Blades in the Dark is probably one of the best modern tabletop RPGs out there. And with an emphasis on teamwork and helping each other out, great for a family game.

Tone: High-adrenaline and gothic 

Perfect for: the cousin with whom you’d pull pranks when you were kids.

Bluebeard’s Bride

Most RPGs emphasize team communication, often by casting you all as a band of adventurers working together. But what if a game casts you all as the same character?

Bluebeard’s Bride does just that: everyone plays a different aspect of the titular bride’s mind, sometimes working in concert, sometimes fighting for control of the body. 

And the bride, of course, wanders through the nightmare mansion of the fairy-tale villain Bluebeard, fighting for her sanity, and armed with only a bunch of surreal keys. Your job isn’t to keep her alive, or even whole; the game begins with a telling of the fairy-tale you’re recreating, and it’s made clear from the start that the bride faces a sticky end. Rather, the game is about the journey; it’s about exploring power, gender and societal expectations; and it’s about the macabre pleasure one can get from witnessing and describing fictional horror in luscious, visceral detail.

Why is a horror game, especially one that deals with mature, heady topics, a good family game? Well, nothing says togetherness like fighting for survival, right? But in all seriousness, the act of experiencing and surviving fictional horror together, well, it’s bound to bring you closer!

NOTE: Bluebeard’s Bride is recommended for a mature audience. 

Tone: Surreal and frightening

Perfect for: your hipster sibling who scoffs at “mainstream” holiday activities.

Photo: Relborn Photo source: Relborn

Golden Sky Stories

The first time I played Golden Sky Stories, our GM served everyone jam cookies that he’d baked himself. “To set the mood,” he said. 

In Golden Sky Stories, you play as shy, shape-shifting woodland-spirits in small-town Japan. What sort of crises do you resolve? Well, maybe a pair of childhood friends are developing confusing feelings for each other and you have to step in to help them understand what’s going on. Or perhaps an annual festival is coming up, and the shipment of fireworks from the city is late. The most pressing crisis you’ll likely ever face is the mountain-spirit visiting the town in disguise and embarrassing herself by eating up everyone’s food.

What of combat? The rule for fighting is that if you engage in it, you lose friendship.

That’s because Ryo Kamiya and Ewen Cluney’s game isn’t about heroes’ journeys, epic clashes, psychological trauma or anything of that sort. Rather, Golden Sky Stories is about being nice to each other. It’s about friendship and understanding, about being kind and helping each other, about going on small, childhood adventures and returning home having grown up just a little. It’s a game version of snuggling up in bed with a mug of cocoa while your mom reads you bedtime stories. 

The game mechanics work to support this setting and tone, and really reinforce camaraderie and character interaction. Characters’ special abilities are all about minor, magical mischief that can help or hinder in small ways. Developing friendships with NPCs provides characters with direct, tangible rewards. Players can even award each other with a form of experience whenever they feel other players deserve it. Really, whenever they feel like it; this means that actions that further move the story the direction other players want, acts that are just cool to imagine, or even groan-inducing puns are all rewarded by the rest of the table. Basically, you’re rewarded for creating fun for other players.

As a lovely, joyful game that encourages positive social interactions, Golden Sky Stories makes an excellent game for anyone in the family who wants to join the fun.

Tone: bucolic and joyous

Perfect for: the grandparent who longs for the faded simplicity of childhood.

Photo: Shut Up & Sit Down Photo: Shut Up & Sit Down

Fall of Magic

“Magic is dying,” the game reads, “and the Magus is dying with it. We travel together to the realm of Umbra where magic was born.” That’s literally all Fall of Magic tells you about the world you’re in. Character creation is similarly spare. You pick a name from a list, a hometown from a choice of five, and a profession based on your hometown. And while you can choose to be a “knight,” “hero,” or “fugitive,” you also get to pick “fox,” “midwife,” or “crab-singer.” What’s a crab-singer? The game doesn’t say; it’s entirely up to you.

Contrast this with the game’s lush art. Fall of Magic comes in a handsome, slim cardboard box. Your characters are represented by heavy, carved metal coins. You play on a wooden-dowelled, handmade cloth map, richly illustrated with the locales you’ll be visiting.

The sparse expository detail and evocative art work in concert to buttress the intent of the game: freeform, imaginative storytelling. Gameplay consists of traveling from location to location, recounting short scenes based on minimalist story prompts, from the mundane “your morning ritual” and “a happy memory” to the more exotic “a beautiful dancer,” or even “beneath the purple sun.” There are no conflict resolution mechanics, and other players enter your scene only if you want them to. As such, gameplay can feel almost meditative at times, as you simply… say what you need to say.

The game celebrates gentle rhythms and quiet moments. While there is indeed an epic struggle scoring your journey, you play not as the Magus, but as their companions. Every time I’ve played the game, epic moments and grand battles tend to retreat into the background. “That’s the Magus’ domain,” my crab-singer might say and instead sit in a tavern and hum a song his mother use to sing to him as a child. These small moments turn into explorations of complex characters, quite unlike what’s seen in most mainstream RPGs.

It’s easy to imagine playing Fall of Magic, with its absence of “gamist” mechanics, while sitting around a crackling fire, snow billowing outside, simply telling stories with family and friends. Yes, it’s a little sad at times, but then, some of the best stories are.

Tone: bittersweet and introspective

Perfect for: your parents’ divorcee friend who wants to relive their sadness at every get-together.

Photo: Shut Up & Sit Down

Lady Blackbird

If you long for the more traditional swashbuckling action, but don’t miss the painstaking task of learning a complex ruleset, then Lady Blackbird is for you. Another title by John Harper, the entire game fits in fewer than 20 PDF pages, and learning the rules will take 20-30 minutes at most. In fact, when I teach game design, I inevitably break out Lady Blackbird because it’s so easy for my students to pick up that I don’t need to waste any valuable class-time teaching them the rules.

Both a game system and an adventure module, Lady Blackbird is super quick to get into. You’re in a fantasy-steampunk world with airships, sky pirates, giant flying squid, and magic coded into your bloodlines. You pick one of five pregenerated, trope-tastic characters that are easy to identify with: the princess on the run, the loyal bodyguard, the gruff veteran, the loveable rascal, and the weird comic relief. You then start in a familiar narrative situation: escaping from a prison-cell. From there, the game master is given some basic plot suggestions, but can take the game wherever they like, building the world as they imagine it. The game can be played in a single afternoon, or over a couple of sessions, whatever the group prefers. No really, it’s a wonderfully flexible game.

The system itself forces players to be narratively creative. Conflict is resolves through roles of dice, but each character can get bonus dice if they use certain tags that are unique to them, and you only get to use tags that are story appropriate. Players are also awarded experience when they hit specific narrative moments, again making story more important than mechanics.

Lady Blackbird’s cool story, identifiable characters and easy rules make it a great fit for new roleplayers. Oh, and it’s free!

Tone: pulpy, with a dash of whatever-you-make-of-it

Perfect for: Your frumpy aunt who needs to be reminded of the exciting moments in life.

Top image from (you guessed it) Shut Up & Sit Down, fine critics of tabletop and board games for all ages and occasions.