Let's start with what to watch out for. Do not get these for any serious gamer.
- Games they already have. Assuming you are a close friend or relative, you should be able to sneak a peek at their game collection. Rare are the games you would want more than one copy of, and having multiple copies of the same game is a diminishing return to put it lightly. Unless they have asked for it specifically, do not get them a second copy of anything they have already.
- The Big Name Games. For clarity, I am only listing the ones I do *not* recommend here:
- Monopoly (and its variants) - Avoid this one like the plague. Any gamer would cringe to be given this, no how beloved an auntie you are.
- Scrabble (or Words with Friends) - Overall, a game with potential, but is not particularly fun. If you want to get them a word game, I would heartily recommend Bananagams.
- Pictionary - A decent party game, though I don't know why you would buy it. You can play it with paper, pencils, and a dictionary.
- Life, Candyland, Clue, Battleship, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Sorry
- Any variety of Trivia game - No. No, no, no. Please, no. These generally don't even count as games in my mind.
- Franchise-based games - These may be tempting, but resist the temptation. Most of these types of games are terrible. Like shovelware and bad merchandise, these are generally cash-ins on popularity, and not good games in themselves. This includes spin-offs, trivia, and franchised versions of existing games.
- Gimmicky Games - Most notably Awkward Family Photos. If you see a game and think "that might be fun" add the word "once" onto the end of that sentence, and see if it rings true. If it doesn't have any discernable replay value, I would not get it for someone. Additional warning signs include
- Seeing the word "wacky" or "hilarious" anywhere on the box
- The game revolving around manipulating little plastic bits, such as flicking little balls, chips, or aiming spring-loaded cannons
- Motorized parts
- Bad cultural stereotypes on the cover
- Anything that you are required to wear on your head
- Overly goofy or cartoony appearance
- Names based on puns or other silly names
- Adult/Drinking/Weed games - Unless you are a dedicated partner in crime to one of these specific vices, don't even consider these as an option.
- Educational Games - Any game that aims to teach you something will generally fail at it. What most people may not realize is that all games teach you something, and do not need to make an explicit effort to be educational. Most games that try to do this will end up suffering for it.
- Something "similar" to a game they like - This is a dangerous road to go on, as you risk both getting them something too similar to an existing game that it isn't worth having both, and a lot of the time, the "similar" version is a terrible version. For example, while Bananagrams is awesome, Pairs in Pears and Appletter are both pretty bad games. There are exceptions to this, but be very wary of this pitfall.
- Roll to Move games - Generally speaking, any game that involves rolling a dice and then moving that many squares will end up being terrible.
Tips to help pick a winner.
- Avoid the aforementioned traps
- Note the gamer's preference on Type A vs Type B games; if they like deep strategy games, get them a deep strategy game; if they like loud, fast, and fun party games, get them one.
- Use the number of players and time to play as clues if you are unsure of this. Generally, anything with more than 4 players is a party game, and anything that takes more than 1 hour is a strategy game (though there are exceptions, like 7 Wonders).
- Do your homework
- Check on BGG to determine the rating of a game. Generally anything that has at least 7 stars is acceptable, though it is a guide rather than a rule. You may want to read the comments for a particular game to see if the game is a good fit for the intended recipient.
- Check out reviews or shows about board games for ideas
- Not only does doing your homework help get the right gift, knowing it is the right gift goes a long way to enjoying the Christmas spirit of giving.
- Ask someone. If you are unsure or just have no ideas, talk to a staff member at the game store. Assuming they are not greedy for commission (and therefore trying to milk your naivety), they generally will be able to lead you to good games, as most of them have ample experience to draw from. This shouldn't be the first thing you try, as it is a good idea to have some knowledge for yourself, but it is a valuable option.
- Know any particular niches that the person enjoys; this can be either genres or themes. If they enjoy Deckbuilders and Zombie games, consider getting them the Resident Evil Deck Building Game; it is below a 7 rating on BGG, but is likely a good fit based on their preferences.
These are games that I would recommend to just about anyone.
- Dominion (and its expansions) - The modern powerhouse of gaming. When buying expansions, the general rule is anything except Alchemy. The preferred buying order is: Base, Intrigue, Seaside, Prosperity, Cornucopia, Hinterlands, Dark Ages (and Alchemy if you really want the complete collection). The "Base Cards" set is not necessary, and should only be got if specifically requested.
- Bananagrams - A fantastic word game. It is everything that Scrabble could have been. While Scrabble gets increasingly boring the more seriously player take it, Bananagrams only gets more intense as you do.
- Carcasonne (and some of its expansions) - A pretty good buy if they do not already own it; be wary of its expansions however, many of them are gimmicky and dumb. I would recommend Inns & Cathedrals and Traders & Builders as good core expansions.
- Settlers of Catan - The standard gateway game. I only have the base set, so I can't endorse any of the expansions firsthand, but it is something that should be in every collection.
- Pandemic - My review of it can be found here. TLDR; great cooperative game.
- The Resistance - A great game that requires a large number of players. I have yet to meet someone who does not enjoy this game.
- Taboo - A surprising exception to my usual tastes, it is clever enough for me to enjoy and recommend
Where can you find these games?
The problem that I think most people have about buying board games is that you don't see any of the good ones at department stores. You can find board games at many stores, but will not generally see any of the good ones unless you know where to look.
- Dedicated game shops are rare and beautiful gems, and if you are lucky enough to have one in your general area, check it out.
- Comic shops usually carry board games, and have much better taste than most stores.
- You can find some games at Chapters, though only usually a limited variety
In the GTA, I know the following places:
- 401 Games (map) - My current favourite. Good prices, good selection. Everything you could ask for.
- Hairy Tarantula (map) - A unique comic and game shop. It is easy to miss on the street, and usually has a few cats walking around it.
- Silver Snail (map)
- Conspiracy Comics (several locations)
- Mind Games (several locations)
- Calendar Club (opens in Christmas season in Erin Mills) - Usually has a few decent games.
There are probably a few others that I have forgotten or never knew about. Feel free to comment with any that I missed.
The following are mixed cases, where they may or may not be a good idea. Use your own discretion.
- Party Games - These can hit or miss. They often are tied into Gimmicky and Trivia games. You may actually end up enjoying them, but most you will play once, and then put them in a dusty closet and never want to play them again.
- Risk - Ultimately, you could do worse than Risk. It is usually a gateway game, so if the gamer in your life is already dedicated, you shouldn't get this for him (unless he is going to use it to recruit his friends).
- Axis & Allies - Pretty much a stepping stone from Risk, it is along the same lines, but one step further away from being casual. If they enjoyed Risk, they will probably like A&A as well.
- Dungeons & Dragons - D&D is a commitment. It requires a dedicated group and an enormous time commitment to play. Unless you know you that the person wants to participate in a campaign, you may want to reconsider getting him D&D.