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Popular board games to try this holiday season


Let's talk board games now. Whether you're on your own or spending the holidays with family and friends, we've got suggestions for games that can help you usher in some holiday cheer. Matt Jarvis is editor-in-chief of the gaming website Dicebreaker. He joins me now to talk about what's cool and new in the world of games. Matt Jarvis, welcome.

MATT JARVIS: Thanks for having me on.

FOLKENFLIK: So this is the second year, obviously, we're talking about games to play in the midst of a pandemic. How has the pandemic affected the games industry or the way people choose to find diversion?

JARVIS: It's been a year of highs and lows, I think, in the board game space, particularly when the pandemic first hit. Obviously, people were in lockdown. And we saw sales of a lot of classic games - so your family games that a lot of people will be familiar with, so "Monopoly," "Scrabble," "Jenga," things like that. Sales of those games went up because people were suddenly home. They had a lot of time. They were spending time with their families, and they wanted to play those kinds of games.

We also saw some hobby games increase in sales. So "Dungeons & Dragons" and modern successors to that - those went up because people took to online groups and video calls to continue or even start groups that they had already. But particularly moving into 2021, we've been hit with a number of major challenges in the board games space, particularly around shipping, which has severely kind of limited hobby games in particular, so games outside of "Monopoly" and "Scrabble." So folks might be familiar with things like "Settlers Of Catan" or "Carcassonne" or "Ticket To Ride."

FOLKENFLIK: Let's get to an example here, help some folks out. Let's talk about a game that caught your attention this year. Tell us why it stood out.

JARVIS: There's a game that's recently seen a rerelease called "Happy Salmon." And it's a game that originally came out a few years ago and had quite a relatively small release. And now it's seeing a rerelease from the makers of Exploding Kittens, which is a very popular card game. And...

FOLKENFLIK: (Laughter) Just the name alone.

JARVIS: Yeah, "Happy Salmon" is incredibly simple and involves just performing four actions. So you fist bump, you high five, you perform a happy salmon - which is kind of slapping each other's wrists in a way, like a flapping fish - or you switch places. And the idea is just to match your own deck of cards with somebody else's. Perform this action, and you both get to discard the card. The first person to get rid of all their cards wins.

So it's this very frantic game where everyone's shouting at each other about high fives and happy salmons and fist bumps and all sorts. And it plays in about 30 seconds, two minutes tops. But it is just a pure burst of energy. It is incredible.

FOLKENFLIK: The names of course are, like, 80% of the delight for me.

JARVIS: (Laughter).

FOLKENFLIK: How about a game for folks who are isolated and alone this year once more, something that can either be played solo or with partners online?

JARVIS: I think one of the great things, even before the pandemic hit, is that more and more games are catering to solo players. So a game that came out a couple of years ago but has just passed a million sales - which, in board game terms, is a significant number, especially in under three years - is Wingspan. And it is about collecting birds and putting them in the right habitats. And it's a game that just really ignited a lot of excitement when it first came out, partly because of the original theme, and it's very true to the theme.

So all of the birds in the deck - I think there are about 150 which are North American birds. They're all relatively based on real life. So the number of eggs they lay is as true to life as you can be within a game. And it's wonderful because as you place each bird down, it will play the call of the bird. So they have all the different bird calls in there. And it will also read out a fact about the bird and genuinely gives it an educational feel, where you're learning things about these birds. So, yeah, I think it is one of those games that will go on to be a classic.

FOLKENFLIK: And what about an intergenerational game that can be enjoyed by grandparents and grandkids together?

JARVIS: I think for an intergenerational game, it's worth pointing out things like exit the game, which is part of a kind of continuing trend of "Escape Room In A Box" games. So escape rooms are you go to a location, and you're essentially locked in a room for an hour. And the room is filled with puzzles. So to find your way out, you have to solve a variety of puzzles, and each puzzle will normally then point you to the next puzzle in the series. So you might be searching through books, looking for some kind of hidden code. You might be finding keys or placing things in a certain pattern.

And "Escape Room In A Box" games take that but put it in a single box so that you can play at home. So instead of going to a location and being locked in a separate room, you just open the box and all the puzzles are inside the box. So it is something that relies more on people working together to solve a series of puzzles. And I think in that way, it's quite intergenerational because as you would have people who go for the newspaper and work together on a crossword, you can have different people who excel at different aspects of each puzzle. So someone might be very good at arranging things into patterns. Someone might be good at wordplay or numbers.

And these exit games - they are relatively cheap, and they play in about an hour. So they're not a huge investment. They're very simple. So I think they're ideal for families who are just looking for a way to spend an afternoon together.

FOLKENFLIK: So my hipper colleagues on the show are telling me that nostalgia is big this year, that the '90s are back and everything old is new again, from clothing to styles to music. How does that look like for games?

JARVIS: Yeah, well, nostalgia is always a big factor in games. So a lot of the games that were released 20, 30, 40 years ago are still going strong now. I mean, for instance, you look at "Monopoly." "Monopoly" is almost a century old, and it is still going strong. And it still has new editions coming out based on modern trends, such as the video game "Fortnite" or the latest movie. And we're seeing it in other games as well.

FOLKENFLIK: I understand that "Pokemon's" having yet another moment.

JARVIS: Yeah. So actually, this is a part of the '90s revival, I suppose. Although, "Pokemon's" never gone away. So over the last year, we've seen celebrities just paying incredible amounts for single Pokemon cards so just these tiny rectangles of card. So last October, the rapper Logic paid about - I want to say it was about $300,000 for a Charizard from 1999. And this set in motion this kind of buying and selling phenomenon that's just continued into this year.

So you've seen celebrities like Steve Aoki - he's a DJ - and Logan Paul, who is a YouTuber - they're just spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on single Pokemon cards. So it's been a year of Pokemon cards just being back in the news because of the money they're making. But that's also then - the celebrities buying them has also led to a lot of people discovering or rediscovering them and going back to the game.

FOLKENFLIK: We've been talking with Matt Jarvis. He's editor-in-chief of the gaming website and YouTube channel Dicebreaker. Thanks, Matt.

JARVIS: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.