Board Game Bonanza: For Gifts, Gatherings & Days Meant for Play

The season for gaming is upon us!

My parents held their four children to a strict regimen of Sunday “family nights.” These obligatory gatherings were real eye-rollers come our teenage years, but had I children of my own, I’d now be continuing the tradition.

I remember the annual family Christmas card signing ritual, and Sunday frisbee tosses and picnics in the park, but mostly I recall the games. Brain-bending math and deductive logic games like Twixt or Mastermind would be had with Dad, while the wiley remainder of us exercised our rights to sibling rivalry in bouts of Sorry or Parcheesi (“Pachisi” in ancient Indian times, with a popular version fondly known as Ludo).

But our homemade cooperative drawing games around the dining-room table made for the fondest of memories. Creative illustration was the perfect medium for my father’s Monty Python-type humor and off-the-charts drawing skills to truly shine. From the bizarre corners of his mind, he’d dream up humanoid machines with long necks and large nostrils. Or two-headed monkeys with matching neckties. Six nights a week he wore his “serious Dad” hat, but come Sunday nights we were all a little starstruck.

Board-game iterations that satisfy today’s sketch-happy family include the competitive but always fun Pictionary, and the entertainingly cooperative Telestrations—akin to the classic whispered “telephone” game but played with pencil and paper, resulting in ridiculous drawings attempted in earnest betwixt hilarious written (mis)interpretations.

The season is upon us for gifting, gathering, and gaming. Looking to beef up your arsenal of tabletop entertainment? Try these picks from Iowa game lovers!

Editor’s Choice

Thank goodness for that insatiable nephew who will push a new game on you even when you’re not in the mood. My recent favorite, Carcassonne, was forced on me by my brother’s oldest, now in college. To his credit, for the better part of last year, playing Carcassonne was all I wanted to do.

Part luck, part logic, and part puzzle-building, it’s a satisfying hour spent constructing a tiled network of medieval French villages, roads, rivers, monasteries, and gardens. Little wooden “meeples” mark your territories and earn you points as the game expands to the edges of the table. Despite constant interference by two curious tuxedo cats (the “little horn-inskys”), Mom and I find one game is just not long enough—such is our addiction—so we’ve started combining our sets to stretch out the fun. We play the entirety with Australian accents, which makes no sense whatsoever, but the two have become synonymous with a good time. Warning: Play the optional “Farmers” variation under doctor supervision only: It has been known to cause palpitations and sudden depression. Also, try the highly rated My First Carcassonne for ages 4+.

Creativity & Wordplay

“I enjoy games that give people a chance to be creative and silly together,” says Jennie Rothenberg, former Fairfielder and mother of two. “My favorite is called Encore. Players have to think of songs that have certain words or ideas in them. A song with the word ‘fire’ in it could be ‘The One I Love’ by R.E.M.—or a song about transportation could be ‘Casey Jones’ by the Grateful Dead (‘Drivin’ that train high on cocaine’).” I love that Jennie doesn’t dumb anything down for her kids.

“Another game my family enjoys is called Ransom Notes,” Jennie says. “You get a bunch of those refrigerator word magnets and then you pick cards that instruct you to use your luck-of-the-draw word assortment to communicate certain messages. E.g., an offer to apply sunscreen on a rapidly sunburning stranger at the beach might be ‘excuse i saw your hideous flesh flame.’

“We also love a game called I Dissent, which has a charming picture of one of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s collars on the front. But I’ll admit we don’t strictly follow the rules. . . . My philosophy is that it’s fine to take whatever a game-maker gives you and have fun with it.” Jennie, whatever anarchy you’ve inspired here seems perfectly fitting for a game of this title.


Gary Gagnon is so into games, he took his wife to the GenCon board game convention in Indianapolis. “If I could only own one board game,” he says, “it would definitely be Terraforming Mars.” In this several-hour undertaking, players control a megacorporation with the goal of making Mars habitable (raising oxygen levels and the temperature, creating oceans on the surface, etc.) “It’s a very clever game—the creators made it feel very realistic, and every time we play it’s different and unique and challenging. I would call it a ‘medium to heavy’ game, but it’s not an aggressive game, not a ‘mean’ game—it’s very rare that somebody has hurt feelings.”

Mary and Gary Gagnon play Terraforming Mars

This factor, I imagine, is pretty important for Gary because he and his wife live full-time in their traveling RV. Game playing is a crucial part of their post-retirement fun—but in a camper, there’s nowhere to hide if you piss off your spouse.

Gary Gagnon playing Terraforming Mars in their RV, where they often play games on rainy days or in the evening.

Realtor and infamous Churchill impersonator Andrew Edlin says, “My favorite board game, other than chess, is Diplomacy, although it can take a long time if played properly with seven players. I like it in large part because the only luck involved is which of the Seven Great Powers [England, France, Germany, Italy, etc.] you are allotted at the beginning. The rest is skill. No dice.” If you like tactics, strategy, psychology, and negotiation, this game, created in 1954, might be up your alley.

Settlers of Catan is a good newer game,” Andrew adds. Catan, a strategic game amassing settlements and resources with low to moderate elements of chance, was mentioned to me with enthusiasm by more than one game lover. Released in 1995, and one of the first to utilize “board building,” Catan has now been translated into more than 40 languages, and for the past 20 years its top players have competed in global championships for the title “Best Catan player in the world!”

Kathy Rudney, whose husband, kids, and grandkids all love games, piqued my curiosity with Cascadia, a game she learned from her daughter that’s described on as “a puzzley tile-laying and token-drafting game featuring the habitats and wildlife of the Pacific Northwest.” Players create habitat corridors for the placement of wildlife tokens, with scoring dependent on various factors, including the strategic arrangements of hawks, foxes, and bears. Kathy tells me it’s similar to but simpler than Wingspan, another game she loves, but she likes Cascadia for its multi-level complexity.

Riotous or Irreverent

I recently was introduced to the adult version of What Do You Meme? If you’re familiar with the family-friendly Apples to Apples or its crudely comedic counterpart, Cards Against Humanity, you’ll be up to speed with the concept of What Do You Meme. Players pick captions for images in an effort to make the funniest memes, and in each round, a new “judge” decides whose match is best. As you can guess, it’s often the one that inspires the most groans or the loudest uncontrollable laughter. What Do You Meme is stupid raucous fun, great for parties, and available in a family-friendly version.

Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza. Need to keep a group of teens entertained for a while? Ask Rowan Farha, age 19, what kept her high-school clan (mostly) out of trouble last year—and won her some brand-new friends during college orientation week. Warning: may cause accidental self-bruising, group hysterics, and premature aging of furniture. Who knew so much fun could be had from a tiny deck of adorably illustrated cards?

Card Games

Speaking of cards, some folks I polled were not big into board games but were fervent fans of the ol’ 52 shuffle. Try these card games next time you break out your Hoyle, as they come highly recommended.

Rummikub. This fun rummy game for all ages, a favorite for birdhouse artist Holly Moore, can be played with two decks (plus two of the four jokers) if you don’t have the board-game version of Rummikub on hand. Very similar to Manipulation Rummy‚ sets (3 or more of a kind) and runs (e.g., the 4, 5, 6, 7 of the same suit), once laid on the table, can be rearranged and added to by any player on their turn as they endeavor to get rid of every card in their hand.

Racing Demon. If you enjoy a bit of frenetic excitement, try this madcap multiplayer modified version of solitaire—“by far my favorite card game,” says Andrew Edlin.

Apparently there’s a rash of folks in my town who get together weekly for a card game called Wizard. Similar to Oh Hell (or Up & Down, in polite company), there’s a trump suit, and as players follow suit in attempt to earn a precise number of tricks each round, a few specialty cards in mix are sure to throw a wrench in the works!

Tichu, a “climbing” card game played with partners, is also popular in Kathy Rudney’s circles. “Of Chinese origin,” she tells me, “it was lost for a time, but later revived in Europe.” For Tichu, you either need a special Tichu deck to play (replacing hearts, diamonds, spaydes, and clubs with jade, sword, pagoda, and star)—or you can add four jokers to a standard 52-card deck if you’re willing to designate them (permanent marker?) as a dog, phoenix, dragon, and Mah Jong (sometimes called sparrow). Combining poker configurations, wild cards, and partner strategy with climbing game-play (your play must beat the value of the previous player’s), “it’s a great game!” says Kathy.

The Eternal Quest for Great Games

This regionally beloved list is a bit shy on games for young kids. If you’re looking to expand your search for games of any genre, try these recommended online resources: is the #1 board-game nerd website, listing pretty much every game in existence, with reviews, ratings, photos, recommended number of players, and “weight” for each game. And if you love playing, but don’t have a partner or posse at hand, try This site allows you to play a myriad of big-name games online with friends connecting long distance—or with willing strangers waiting in queue!

Meredith Siemsen

Meredith, an Iowa native, was baffled when she earned her high school's writing award in 1993. It wasn't until twenty years later that she discovered she actually enjoyed wordcraft. (Too bad she's still a two-fingered typist.) Thanks for reading, friends!