Ah the holidays. Friends, fellowship, families gathering around the table for food and fun. I hope that everyone had the bonanza of their wildest dreams. I know, however, that many folks head into the New Year with a gift card or two burning a hole in their pocket. All three of these games are easy to explain and family friendly, making them perfect for 2023 get-togethers.
From the creators of Exploding Kittens and the The Oatmeal comes Mantis, a delightful came that manages the impossible: making a “take-that” game feel friendly. For the unfamiliar “take-that” games, like Munchkin, are notorious for being full of feel-bad moments. Your opponents stop you from doing things, take things from you, destroy your board, and all kinds of other things in ways that can be arbitrary. Mantis deftly dodges all of those feel-bads.
On your turn you’ll draw a card from the central deck and decide if you will Score or Steal from an opponent. If you say Score you flip the card check to see if you already have any matching colored Shrimp in your Tank, and if so put them all in your Scoring Pool. If you don’t have any matches you just add the card to your Tank. If you choose Steal you choose an opponent and flip your card over; if they have matching colors you’ll steal their cards and put them in your Tank (not Scoring Pool).
The fun comes from the fact that the back of every card has 3 colors indicated on it and the shrimp on the front will be one of those three colors. This is all you have to inform your choice, but it’s part of what takes the sting out steals. When your opponent has Yellow, Red, and Blue shrimp and the card back on your turn shows Yellow, Red, and Blue, the whole table is going to cheer you on and your opponent knows what the clear choice is. It turns spite into silliness, and the game plays so fast that bad luck never lasts long.
Pik Qwik is a brand new tile-based word game in the same general family as Bananagrams. Pik Qwik comes with a large pile of tiles and a stack of circular cards. The cards have a word on them and come in 4 categories: Mix-Up, Same Name, On-Topic and Rhyme Around. Each round a card is flipped and players race to spell a word that fits the category. For example, if the card category is Mix-Up and the word is Steam, you’re racing to find any word that uses any number of letters in Steam. Fastest wins, but if two people tie in slapping the buzzer whoever spelled the longest word wins.
The only knock against Pik Qwik is that the cards include English and French on the same side, and the colors kind of blend which can make it hard to see at a glance what the category is. However, I rolled this out at Thanksgiving and other family events and it was a hit with kids and adults. Rounds go fast and you can play as little or as long as you like (official rules are 20 rounds but we just played unrestricted for a while).
Cat in the Box
Cat in the Box is the most complex game on this list, though at its core it is a basic trick-taking game. If your crew has ever played Spades, Hearts, Euchre, or any of the million games in this broad category they’ll be 90% there.
Cat in the Box refers to Schroedinger’s Cat, and the thing that makes this game so amazing is that the suit of your card is “unresolved” until you play it. That is, cards come in 4-suits (Red, Blue, Green, and Yellow) but are printed in black-and-white: you choose the suit of your card as you play it. Of course, there is only one of each color-number combination so once you drop a Blue 6 no one else can play a 6 and call it Blue later in that round.
The game might look intimidating when you read the rules and see all the bits, but bulk of these pieces are there to help track what combinations have been played. The strategy comes in bidding, and in your opportunities to suss out what other folks have and how to put them in a situation where they can’t play a legal combination. When this happens, they’ve created a paradox and the round ends with no points for them!
A review copy of Pik Qwik was provided to the author for consideration.