Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Last-minute gift picks from the Chicago Toy & Game Fair

While we spend most of our time talking about video games on Gameological, we think that board games make great gifts. Counterintuitively, they might make even better presents than ever in our present era of consoles, smartphones, and tablets. A board game is the perfect way to break out of the screen-induced malaise that can set in when reuniting family members get bored with each other around the holidays. Once the conversation runs out—which tends to happen about 15 minutes after the last sibling, aunt, or grandpa shows up—generations young and old itch to check their personal devices. It starts with a furtive peek at the tweets on your phone, it escalates when your sister gets sucked into YouTube videos on her iPad, and before long, everybody’s on a screen.

A board game is the perfect way to get everyone talking to each other again without having to actually talk to each other—when everybody’s focused on a cardboard land of adventure, there’s less of an opportunity for Grandma Rose to share her latest birther conspiracy theories or for Uncle Frank to sell you on his can’t-miss commodity-trading scheme. (Your extended family is a disgraceful bunch of deranged malcontents, is all we’re saying.) So, as we did last year, we recently headed to the Chicago Toy And Game Fair, where independent game-makers hawk their wares to gift-givers in need of inspiration. Here are a few of our picks to aid in your last-minute shopping.


Serpent Stones

Robert Harrington has been working on Serpent Stones since 2005 when he heard about the discovery of an Aztec game that used obsidian arrowheads and an adobe board. The rules to that ancient board game are likely lost forever, but its emergence got Harrington thinking about what the citizens of the Aztec empire—a civilization whose most famed recreational activity is human sacrifice—might have liked to play in their spare time. The result of Harrington’s daydream has two players trying to form a contiguous line of warrior-priests from their side of the board to their opponent’s, a quest made difficult by attack cards that can destroy or capture your cards or create obstacles to your progress like a wall of skulls. 

Who it’s for: History lovers and players who think that game night could use a bit more bloodshed. [SN]

The Magic Labyrinth


The simple goal of The Magic Labyrinth is to be the first to gather five spell components randomly scattered around the board. The trick is that the multilevel board contains a customizable maze, which is covered by a cardboard lid, leaving you to try to navigate it without being able to see the walls. Pieces are connected to the surface by magnets, so when you hit a hidden barrier, your magnet drops off, and you have to move your piece back to the beginning.

Who it’s for: Anyone who’s ever wanted to test their navigation skills against those of a cheese-seeking lab rat. [SN]



The traditional rage move in tabletop games is to flip the board, sending your opponent’s pieces flying. PlaSmart’s Squashed funnels your seething anger in the opposite direction: The object in this strategy game is to “squash” your opponents pieces with such vigor that they collapse through the playfield itself. After rolling a die, you move any of your pegs around on a hole-pocked cube. You’re looking either to stomp an opponent directly with your peg or to end up at the “king” piece, which allows you to pick up the entire cube and slam one side of it down on the table, vanquishing whatever hapless pegs were unlucky enough to reside there. The winner is the last player who survives with at least one peg still alive on the outside.


Who it’s for: Whac-A-Mole aficionados seeking something a bit more cerebral. [JT]



TDC Games is best known for its Dirty Minds series of adult trivia games, but they’ve been branching out into more family-friendly fare with a series of games packaged to look like food. Having already released the Campbell’s Alphabet Dice and Makin’ Bacon dice games, the company’s latest outing is Baloney, a party game where you have to decide if a fact someone is reading off a card is true or false and bid a number of points based on your level of confidence. “When my kids are playing, you wouldn’t believe how good they are at lying,” TDC vice president Chuck Schmelzer said.

Who it’s for: Parents looking to show their kids that honesty is not always the best policy. [SN]


Acronym Ace: Speak GOV


The dorkiest game on the ChiTAG show floor, Parli-Cards’ Acronym Ace: Speak GOV is not much more than a set of flashcards. Each one has an acronym (or an initialism, if you want to be precious about it) that corresponds to a department of the federal government; your job is simply to give the full name of the agency. The cards are color-coded by difficulty, but beyond that, it’s up to you to provide the broader game here. While it may be simple, there’s something endearing about the fact that somebody made a game out of such extreme political nerdery. And if the ability to make sense of our great bureaucracy’s alphabet soup is not a point of pride for you, the Acronym Ace series extends into other realms, such as sports and texting lingo.

Who it’s for: The self-imagined policy wonk whose West Wing DVD boxes are worn from overuse. [JT]


Yoga Spinner


Think Twister is too easy? Try Yoga Spinner, where the spinner colors coincide to a set of cards that not only prescribe yoga poses but also tell you how many times you have to perform these poses and how long you have to hold them. Doing a split to get your legs between two Twister color rows will seem simple after you’ve spent 10 seconds in “Warrior III.”

Who it’s for: Competitive fitness fans, people with a good chiropractor. [SN]

Razor Crazy Cart

The Crazy Cart is not a game, but it proved too much fun not to include here. Made by Razor, the maker of those rattling silver scooters that are the scourge of sidewalks across the nation, the Crazy Cart is part scooter, part go-kart, and part shopping cart. At first, it seems like little more than a tiny buggy, but when you pull the lever to the right of the driver’s seat, the rear casters are allowed to move freely, independent of the front drive casters. This can send the Crazy Cart into a spin, a sideways drift, or other dizzying permutations depending on the conditions. The lever, the steering wheel, and the accelerator are the only three controls, yet even in the tiny demo space at ChiTAG, it was clear that this limited interface made for a wide variety of badass moves. Ali Kermani, the Cart’s inventor, said he was working on an adult version. But for the time being, this reporter had to squeeze his fat ass into the kid-sized cart, terrorizing a nearby child until responsible adults encouraged her to get away from the terrible man.


Who it’s for: Budding daredevils, overzealous pop-culture website editors. [JT]

Wanna Bet?

The tamer version of bribing your friend to drink a bottle of hot sauce, Wanna Bet? gives each player a challenge, like hopping on one foot for 30 seconds or kicking a die in the air and catching it, and all the other players wager whether or not that person will succeed.


Who it’s for: Compulsive gamblers—we’re looking in your direction, Uncle Frank. [SN]

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