What is the best family board game to play at Christmas?

For those safely bubbled up with the in-laws, board games can offer a communal bonding experience. Pass the dice ...

Monopoly; Catan; Trivial Pursuit.
Board silly ... (from left) Monopoly; Catan; Trivial Pursuit. Photograph: Alamy
Board silly ... (from left) Monopoly; Catan; Trivial Pursuit. Photograph: Alamy
Mon 14 Dec 2020 08.00 EST

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This frustrating oubliette of a year has ended up being a rainy caravan holiday on a huge scale. Legions of us have been stuck indoors casting around for leisure options. So, alongside the headline-grabbing launch of a new generation of consoles, more old-fashioned games have also been enjoying a resurgence. Hasbro – landlords of the venerable Monopoly franchise – recently reported a 21% increase in board game sales.

The idea of swapping a vibrating PlayStation 5 controller for cards, dice and plastic tiddlywinks might seem a little retrograde. But there is something special about convening a fractious household round a physical board. Unlike demanding head-to-head duels such as chess or Stratego, a multiplayer free-for-all is a communal bonding experience. Each session offers an escape from smalltalk about tiers, furloughs or vaccine timetables. As Christmas looms, it will likely be an even more important ritual.

So what is the ultimate board game? Every family will have their own, depending on what dusty Ravensburger or MB Games boxes their parents had stashed in the sideboard. Perhaps your clan have personal attachments to the stately home-slasher Cluedo, or engrossing global regime-changer Risk, or OTT pest-control romp Mouse Trap. More recent classics such as Catan (an addictive society-building simulator) and Ticket to Ride (where you criss-cross a country or continent as a budding railway magnate) inspire evangelical fervour in their fans. There has also been an inventive new wave of role-playing games including Boy Problems, a Carly Rae Jepsen-themed sci-fi heist adventure.

The irrefutably dull Monopoly – first released in 1935 – is still, somehow, the market leader despite no one seeming particularly interested in playing a single game through to the end. This capitalist warhorse now seems to exist primarily as a cash-in brand extension for films, TV shows or football clubs: 2020 has seen the inevitable addition of a Baby Yoda-themed set, plus a 40th-anniversary Pac-Man edition that comes with its own (admittedly pretty cool) mini arcade cabinet.

But the ultimate board game, the one that tickles that competitive pub quiz urge while also providing the physical gratification of literally slotting a dinky cheese wedge into a plastic pie casing, has got to be Trivial Pursuit. There is an elegance to its simplicity, in that the six-spoked board layout chimes with the wagon-wheel playing pieces, plus there is a definitive end in sight, and everyone can see who is winning at a glance. It is admittedly a little more severe than the Play-Doh freestyling of Cranium or those other touchy-feely 1990s games that encourage creativity.

But definitive answers – all precisely colour-coded on the back of a card – can still be a source of genuine comfort. And when it comes to Trivial Pursuit, the older and more dog-eared your copy the better: a classic Genus Edition gives parents (or grandparents, if you are lucky enough to safely see them) an advantage when it comes to answering questions about 1980s TV personalities or the USSR. Diving into such a no-nonsense game makes you realise that the true enjoyment comes from the people you are playing with, and that is surely the greatest prize of all.

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