Nov 23, 2021
By Austin Trunick
It’s that time of year again, folks: the weather is getting frigid in large parts of the world, that one local radio station has already switched to seasonal programming, and it’s starting to dawn on many of us just how quickly the holidays will be here. Don’t fret about gift ideas, though – we’ve got you covered with Under the Radar’s annual Holiday Gift Guide, in which we give you our gift suggestions in a broad variety of categories.
On the first leg of this year’s Holiday Gift Guide journey, we’re taking a look at some of our favorite releases in the world of board games and tabletop RPGS. Hopefully 2021 was a little better for our fellow hobbyists out there after a prior year where unless you lived with another gamer, you probably didn’t do much playing in person. As gathering together has become possible again, you can peruse our suggestions below and perhaps bring something new to your gaming table.
Keep checking back at Under the Radar over the next few weeks as we’ll be unveiling our 2021 Holiday Gift Guide in installments, with sections breaking down many of this year’s best vinyl releases, boxed sets, Blu-rays, collectibles, video games, alcoholic beverages, and more. While you’re thinking about gifts, please consider a subscription to Under the Radar for any indie music-lover in your life.
The BIG Game
Descent: Legends of the Dark (Fantasy Flight Games)
Descent: Legends of the Dark features the most seamless blend of technology and tabletop gaming that we’ve ever encountered. This is a dungeon crawler that removes much of what was tedious about the genre by moving all of the DM-like tasks to an app, allowing all of the players at the table to take control of heroes as they adventure through the sixteen missions in the base campaign. Removing that tedium doesn’t take away from the tabletop experience, either: this is a huge box full of fully-illustrated cards, gorgeous miniatures, and tons of cardboard, 3D terrain pieces that form the dungeons as you explore. (For such a massive game, there’s refreshingly little set-up for each session after the initial unboxing and building of these pieces.) It’s a game that looks hella nice on the table – one that even your non-gaming housemates will want to stop and stare at.
These 3D dungeon maps are used to great effect in the game’s fun battle system, as your heroes will be moving up and down levels—yes, these pieces can be stacked to create multiple floors on a battlefield—and around terrain to gain a clear line of sight or take cover. Battles are simple enough at their core, with each player taking one move and two actions on their turn, but layered with variation as each monster (controlled by the app, remember) behaves differently, and characters’ weapons can be highly customized through a cool upgrade system. It helps that most of what you need to keep track of in battle is represented by cards on the table in front of you. Again, this marriage of the app and tabletop elements keeps the action feeling streamlined in the moment.
Add to all of this memorable characters and a story with rock-solid writing, and there’s a lot in Descent: Legends of the Dark to get excited about. The way it melds the best of both worlds—video games and the tactile pleasures of board games—feels cutting edge, similar to that feeling you get when you buy into a new generation of game consoles. Yes, it’s pricey, but the base game will take you between 40 and 50 hours to complete—and there will inevitably be expansions over the coming years. In board games, that’s a lot of entertainment. (Buy it here.)
Taking its inspiration from The Peloponnesian War fought by Athens and Sparta in the 5th Century BC, Polis is a one-vs-one strategy game that merges elements of wargames, area control, and resource management into a single, 90-120 minute brain burner. Fran Diaz’ design is complex, and meant for more experienced gamers—but those up for the challenge will find not only a nuanced strategical engine to tinker with, but a game that looks and feels downright luxurious. The extra-thick boards have recessed spaces cut into them to help keep track of your resources and prevent cubes from sliding all over the board when your friend bumps the table. (Forget minis, plush bags, or fancy dance: this is this #1 upgrade we love to see in our board games.) The handsome, printed wooden pieces and event cards that provide historical context help draw both players into the game, which can be played aggressively or peacefully, should they choose to go after each other or focus on just building up their supplies. Packing meaty decisions at every turn, Polis is the most compelling two-player heavyweight game we’ve had the pleasure to enjoy since Twilight Struggle, and we don’t say that lightly. If you know someone who would really sink their teeth into a heavy head-to-head experience, Polis delivers both intriguing gameplay and a beautiful table presence. (Buy it here.)
Anno 1800 (Kosmos)
Computer games don’t always make a smooth transition from the desktop to the tabletop, but all-star game designer Martin Wallace (Brass, Age of Steam, A Few Acres of Snow) has bucked that trend with the excellent Anno 1800. Inspired by the real-time strategy game, the board game version is a friendly style of civ builder for up to four players that takes roughly two hours. The crux of the game is its expansive tech tree: you’ll be spending much of your time building up your Industrial era factories to produce better and more valuable goods to meet the demands of your population. Don’t have access to the products you need to satisfy your needs? No problem – just trade for it from an opponent’s stockpile. (They can’t say no—but they do get something in return, so it’s largely a win-win scenario all around.) There’s a satisfying sense that you’re building up something tangible, and given that each game serves up a different set of citizens, you won’t be barking up the same tech tree every time you play. Best of all, Anno 1800 looks complicated—but it’s not that difficult to learn. All in all, there’s a lot to recommend here for any serious gamer in your life. (Buy it here.)
Castles of Tuscany (Ravensburger)
Stefan Feld’s pseudo-sequel to Castles of Burgundy is a lighter, faster-moving game than its predecessor—but doesn’t lose any of that classic’s fun factor. Players will each receive small mats displaying colorful grids of hexagons, which they’ll be trying to fill up with matching-colored tiles. On each turn, a player takes one of only three actions: placing a tile by playing cards from their hand, drawing more cards, or reserving a tile. When you play a tile, it triggers a bonus that can daisy chain additional bonuses, depending on what tiles you’ve already played. (This is where the real strategy comes in.) Castles of Tuscany is accessible without being oversimplified: it’s easy to learn and teach to others. We’d put this in the same category as games like Azul, Splendor, or Kingdomino, as board games that even non-gamers can pick up and play, but seasoned players will still enjoy. It’s the sort of game that’s perfect for bringing out when the family visits for the holidays. (Buy it here.)
Royal Visit (IELLO Games)
This delightful tug-of-war style card game has two players competing to lure the king and members of his court into their home chateau. Players take turns playing cards that will typically move one of these figures left or right across a horizontal playmat—but there are clever rule wrinkles that pertain to how each one travels. For example, the king piece must always be in between the two knight pieces, and he can never leapfrog them. The jester cards can act as wilds if the corresponding piece is between your chateau and the king; the wizard, meanwhile, has the ability to summon another piece to its spot. These little abilities are where the real strategy of Royal Visit lies, and figuring out the best ways to exploit them is the key to playing well. At just twenty minutes, it’s an easy-to-teach, quick-to-reset game that lends itself well to back-to-back repeat sessions. This makes it a great game for couples, or to travel with—the cloth playmat and chunky wooden pieces make it feel like a luxury game that you can unroll and set up almost anywhere. (Buy it here.)
Space Invaders (Buffalo Games & Puzzles)
Space Invaders is one of the original arcade video games. Created by Tomohiro Nishikado and released in 1978, some amusement arcades were at first skeptical and reluctant to feature the game, but it soon became a hit and by the end of 1979 there were over 750,000 Space Invaders machines worldwide and it had become the all-time best selling video game up until then. In the late ’70s the game was considered state of the art and was the first ever fixed shooter game, but by today’s standards game-play is pretty simple—you just move your spaceship back and forth with the joystick and shoot at the attacking aliens and UFOs. It still amounted to hours of fun and holds up today as a retro classic.
Now Buffalo Games & Puzzles have adapted Space Invaders into a board game of the same name. The first thing to know is that it’s much more complex in non-digital form. Without overwhelming you with all the rules, the basics are that you use a mini catapult to launch tokens at the various alien cards, taking them out if your token lands on them. You also have to land your tokens in the larger 3D UFO mother ship placed at the top of the board. It’s a cooperative game and you work together to take out all the aliens and the mother ship before they destroy Earth. It’s a lot more complicated than simply pointing and shooting, with various actions to take before each round ends. It also takes some time to master exactly how hard to press the catapult. But once you get the hang of it all, much fun is had. Players who grew up on the original arcade game will appreciate this adaptation, but Space Invaders will appeal to younger ones too. It’s recommended for ages 8+ and good for 2-4 players. Carrie Klenko was the lead developer on the adaptation and Kane Klenko came up with the game play. (Buy it here.) By Mark Redfern
Tetris (Buffalo Games & Puzzles)
The Tetris tabletop strategy game is a tactile version of the classic video game. The basic concept is similar, in that you compete against other players in an effort fit shapes together and get as many complete lines as possible. Unlike its digital counterpart, however, there is thankfully a little less anxiety involved in that you can move at your own pace and you don’t have new shapes constantly dropping that you have to quickly place. Up to four players can take part and there’s no turn taking, all the players have to work with the same shape at the same time. The plastic shapes are put into vertical Matrix Towers, which have a grid like structure and grooves to help aid placement. Unlike the computer game, you have access to Minos, small square pieces that only take up one space on the grid, making it easier to place difficult shapes. But Minos run out eventually and the player that gets six completed lines in the Matrix Tower first gets extra points, so the race is on. This game would certainly most appeal to fans of the original Tetris, but newbies should enjoy it too. Phil Walker-Harding designed the game. It’s recommended for ages 8+ and good for 2-4 players. (Buy it here.) By Mark Redfern
Exit: The Cursed Labyrinth (Kosmos)
Kosmos’ growing collection of escape room-style games, the Exit: The Game series, received a new installment this year with The Cursed Labyrinth. One to four players can spend one to two hours attempting to solve the myriad puzzles contained in this box. On the easier side of the series’ difficulty levels, The Cursed Labyrinth uses a deck of cards, two booklets, a decoder disc, a variety of tokens, and a single thumbtack to shape its mystery, which is set inside a winding castle garden which you and your partners have found yourselves trapped in. Designed to only be played once—the Exit games have you writing on, tearing up, and otherwise mangling their pieces to solve their puzzles—they usually run less than $15, which is a good value for an evening’s worth of entertainment. (Buy it here.)
Echoes: The Cocktail (Ravensburger)
Ravensburger’s new line of Echoes games does things differently than anything we’ve ever covered here before. Utilizing a well-designed app, Echoes is an audio-driven puzzle. Players will listen to clues—snippets of dialogue and environmental noises—linked to the various components in the box, and then they’ll attempt to arrange them in order to unlock the next part of the puzzle. The first release, Echoes: The Cocktail, is a mob mystery set in a New York speakeasy; the second, The Dancer, is a ghost story set in a Scottish manor home. At less than ten bucks each for a one-hour play through, these are unique, stocking stuffer-sized mysteries. (Buy it here.)
Gifts for Tabletop Role-Players
Dune: Adventures in the Imperium (Modiphius)
SRP: $62 for core rulebook
Dune: Adventures in the Imperium allows players to come up with and play as members of their own house in the universe of the classic sci-fi novel series. The 300-page core rulebook gives players and GMs all of the tools and toys necessary strike up their own adventure on Arrakis and beyond—there’s even a 70-page (!) guide to world of Dune, which is a fascinating read for anyone not well-versed in the books’ lore and politics. Interestingly, the book breaks down how to run combat at any imaginable scale—from one-on-one swordfights to a full-blown battlefield filled with soldiers, vehicles, and aircraft—meaning that your unique adventure in the Imperium can be as epic or as laser-focused as your GM allows.
Here’s one more hot tip: this particular RPG is based on the original Frank Herbert novel, but that doesn’t mean you can’t envision your campaign as part of David Lynch’s Dune universe, or that of the new Denis Villeneuve film. (Buy it here.)
Fallout: The Roleplaying Game (Modiphius)
SRP: $53 for core rulebook
The nuclear post-apocalypse by-way-of Nick at Night classic sitcom setting of the Fallout video games has built its way to become one of the most fleshed-out pop culture universes of the last twenty-five years. Over four sprawling main games, two quite sizable spinoffs, and numerous tie-in games, players know the elements of this world by heart: ghouls and mutants, the Brotherhood of Steel and radscorpions, big guns and Nuka Cola caps, V.A.T.S. and S.P.E.C.I.A.L. With a world this familiar, it’s no wonder that fans have long wanted to roleplay in it—and Fallout: The Roleplaying Game makes experiencing those trappings in an analog setting possible.
Modiphius’ Fallout RPG really captures many of the trademarks of the digital games, particularly Fallout 3 and 4. Built from the same 2d20 system as Dune: Adventures in the Imperium, Fallout utilizes the video game’s S.P.E.C.I.A.L. ratings and perks system to measure the characters’ aptitude at any given task. Combat, in particular, feels ripped straight from the game: players can target specific body parts on their assailants, causing tide-turning effects whenever they score a critical hit. The rulebook itself is even heavily illustrated with the game’s famous Vault Boy mascot. These sort of things will make the RPG feel very familiar to Fallout fans, who should be all over this tabletop translation. (Buy it here.)
D&D: Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons
How integral are dragons to the world’s most popular roleplaying game? Here’s a hint: it’s called Dungeons and Dragons, after all. Released just a few weeks ago, Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons is your source for all things dragon-related—and it’s far more than just a bestiary. There are many things here for a DM to play with, but players will find interesting chapters, as well, featuring a new race (Dragonborn—think humanoid dragons) and dragon-related subclasses for monks and rangers. Dungeon masters will not only have more than sixty pages of stat boxes and descriptions for dragons of all sizes, colors, and varieties of deadly breath attacks, but fun stuff like guides to designing lairs, or how to handle magical treasures the heroes find when they plunder their hoards. It’s the most dedicated tome on a single monsters type we’ve ever encountered, and the details it provides are enough to make any DM giddy with inspiration. Seriously – there’s a whole passage on *baby* dragons, which makes their behavior sound not unlike that of kittens or puppies. Who wouldn’t have fun planning a session around that? (Buy it here.)
D&D: Candlekeep Mysteries
Who’s familiar with the old TV series Night Gallery? (Or, maybe you’ve seen Bart Simpson parody it in one of the classic Treehouse of Horrors episodes . . . ?) In each episode, host Rod Serling would wander into a dark room containing nothing but easels, each with a curtain draped over them. He’d give a bit of an introduction, uncover one of the paintings, and then viewers would be taken into that world for a suspenseful short story. Night Gallery is what kept coming to mind as we browsed through the seventeen stand-alone adventures included in the new D&D campaign book, Candlekeep Mysteries.
Rather than a dark gallery, this tome takes place within the ancient, magical library known as Candlekeep. And rather than paintings, the players make their way through books that serve as doorways to adventure. Each quest in here revolves around solving a mystery, and is meant to be played in a single sitting. Now, you can play Candlekeep Mysteries straight through—taking players from levels 1 through 16—or cherry pick your favorites and adapt them to your own campaign. In any case, there’s a huge amount of variety in here, with compelling stories provided by celebrity authors. The versatility of playing it as a full campaign or quick one-shots provides Candlekeep Mysteries with a The versatility of playing it as a full campaign or quick one-shots provides Candlekeep Mysteries with a lot of value. (Buy it here.)
D&D: Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft
What monsters lurk beyond the mist? Dungeons and Dragons’ famed Gothic horror setting opens its doors to 5E players with Van Richtern’s Guide to Ravenloft, a new sourcebook offering macabre playthings for players and DMs alike. For the former, there are new subclasses for bards and warlocks, and a robust set of tools for crafting a character meant for a spooky setting. The latter receives the best goods in the form of guides for creating a terrifying world, a walking tour of Ravenloft’s many horrifying domains, and a compendium of creepy monsters of all difficulty levels—from possessed puppets to zombie swarms. If you want to spice up your D&D nights with a horror-themed campaign, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft should be your If you want to spice up your D&D nights with a horror-themed campaign, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft should be your starting spot. (Buy it here.)
D&D: The Wild Beyond the Witchlight
The circus is coming to town! Or perhaps it might in your next D&D campaign, that is. The octennially-occurring Witchlight Carnival—that’s every eight years, folks—has arrived in your campaign world, bringing with it all sorts of magic and festivity. The carnival is closely linked to the fae world, welcoming faeries and their fellow kind to your land, as well as a group of evil-inclined witches called the Hourglass Coven, who you’ll need to thwart. Designed to take new characters up to level eight, players can try out a pair of all-new races: faeries (obviously) and humanoid rabbits (!). This is a really fun setting, part Alice in Wonderland and part Baz Luhrmann movie, full of wonderful things like singing mushrooms and living dolls. If you’re a DM with a playful group and looking for a campaign on the lighter side of adventuring, look no further than The Wild Beyond the Witchlight. (Buy it here.)