Growing up, everyone in my family received a board game for Christmas. We'd spend the lazy days that followed jumping in and out of mysterious worlds, word puzzles and intricate versions of charades. But as we grew up and moved out, the fading stacks of cardboard began collecting dust, and Netflix took over as our new post-holiday ritual. That was, until a few years ago.
Inspired by an excuse to indulge in spiced rum cocktails and bored with our streaming queue, my siblings and I invited out-of-town cousins over to our parents' house, broke out some of the old standbys, and started a new holiday tradition that resulted in us adding a few games to our adult Christmas lists.
Apparently, we're not alone.
"By our calculations, we are in the golden age of board games," says Kyle Engen, founder and steward of operations at the Interactive Museum of Gaming and Puzzlery.
Matthew Hudak, toys and games analyst with Euromonitor International, agrees, citing a recent market report that sales of games and puzzles grew by 15 percent in 2016. "It's something that has been bubbling up for years now, but 2016 was the most influential year for board games," he says. "It's massive. There were more than 5,000 board games introduced into the U.S. market last year."
According to Hudak, traditional board games are still the bulk of the market, but hobby board games, catered for adults, pushed the category's growth to the next level. "It's become a new go-to social activity," he adds.
There's plenty of speculation about what's driving the boom — video games, the Internet, millennials preferring to socialize at home, hygge-style — but Barry "BJ" Rozas, a lawyer from Louisiana who moonlights as a board game reviewer, says it really comes down to one thing: "Today's games are better."
Rozas, a veteran gamer who created the blog Board Game Gumbo to share his passion for hobby games, credits creative game designers with getting people excited about board games again. Some of his favorites for beginners include: Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Pandemic.
"Very few people ask me for Candy Land anymore," says Kathleen Donahue, whose popular game shop Labyrinth on Capitol Hill is celebrating its seventh anniversary this year. "People come in and say, 'I've been playing Pandemic lately and I love it. Do you have any other recommendations?' "
According to Donahue, one of this year's biggest sellers, Codenames, is also a perfect party game. "Everyone who came to my Christmas Eve dinner loved it," she says. "My stepson, my mom, my college roommate, my 10-year-old son."
Which leads her to one of the other benefits of incorporating a board game into your next gathering: "Games give that framework to interact with people in an easy manner," says Donahue, who hosts more than 700 gaming events each year.
"The rules have already been set up, so you can be in a social situation and relate to people on a non-superficial level without being too serious."
And that is something entertaining experts have been preaching for a long time.
"We have a library of game-related books, including six or seven that are from the '30s and '40s, on how to throw a party," says Engen, referring to his collection at the museum. "They have instructions for social 'games,' such as everyone putting each other's coat away or having everyone sit back-to-back and say something about themselves."
Fast-forward 80 years, and although old-school ice breakers may feel a little forced or awkward, a board game can be the perfect thing to bring everyone together in a fun way — especially when you're inviting friends from different circles or co-workers, says Amanda Saiontz Gluck, creator of the blog Fashionable Hostess.
Gluck recommends setting the stage for your game night in the family room with a laid-back atmosphere around comfy couches. Her No. 1 tip? Bring everything you need for the party to the coffee table and have everything accessible, so people aren't disengaging to go to the kitchen or to the bar.
"Bring an ice bucket with wine, beer or Champagne, and glasses set up," she recommends. "Serve good munching food, such as a cheese board you can prep ahead of time or crudites, and get cozy around the table."
Gluck says during the winter months, she loves having extra pillows and throw blankets ready, especially ones with warm textures, such as cashmere, fur and velvet. Alternatively, she says, you can also incorporate a board game or two alongside a cozy drink display at the end of a more formal dinner party.
"Once everyone's full, sit down with hot tea and hot chocolate and dessert around the table," she suggests.
According to Rozas, if you (or your guests) haven't opened a game box since middle school, there are a few common pitfalls to avoid.
"Have a set time," he says. "I remember the first time I planned a game night, some of the participants were worried. They pictured the old Dungeons & Dragons days when we played for 12 hours."
And, he adds, "don't overwhelm people with a giant stack of games you don't know the rules to," he adds. "Pick a couple and learn the rules ahead of game night. There's plenty of YouTube videos and tutorials on Punchboard Media."
And who knows, once you get going, you might just make board game night a regular occurrence.
"Every Thursday night, I play games, and it's a time I don't have to think or worry about anything," Donahue says. "Once people start that, they don't want to give it up."
Looking to spice up your game night? Try one of these expert picks.
"It's a modern-day, really cool, artsy Jenga. It's easy for people to jump in and out." — Kathleen Donahue, Labyrinth
Best for: New gamers.
"It's a cooperative story-based game, where you act as CDC workers." — Kathleen Donahue, Labyrinth
Best for: A tough crowd. It's one of the most popular games in the country.
"One person knows a secret word, and they're trying to get everyone to guess the word. The werewolf is trying to get people not to guess it." — BJ Rozas, Board Game Gumbo
Best for: Good friends. "Anyone who enjoys the party game Mafia. There's a lot of communication and a lot of laughs."
"It's a good bonding game. You're put in a strange scenario." — Kyle Engen, Interactive Museum of Gaming and Puzzlery
Best for: People who are getting to know each other.
"It's a cooperative game, so everyone is working to win together. You work as firefighters out in the wilderness. Everybody has a unique role and works together to beat back fires." — BJ Rozas, Board Game Gumbo
Best for: Mixed age groups, noncompetitive crowds.
●Kill Doctor Lucky
"Clue was invented as a pastime during the blackout in the Second World War. Now Kill Doctor Lucky is a game in which we're all invited back to the house, but we can't have anyone else see us. It's a game that happens before the game of Clue. What if we're the ones who do the murder?" — Kyle Engen, Interactive Museum of Gaming and Puzzlery
Best for: Nostalgic gamers, "if you're okay with the moral ambiguity."
●New York 1901
"When you throw out a map of Manhattan from 1901 and tell people, 'we're going to build out the boroughs of New York,' those are themes people can instantly get. It's just competitive enough that people aren't getting their feelings hurt." — BJ Rozas, Board Game Gumbo
Best for: Those in a time crunch. "It plays in under an hour."