Today, we cracked out Carcassonne for the first time this festive season.
For anyone not familiar with Carcassonne, it's a tile-laying strategy game in which you build up roads and cities and score points for having more of your men (or "meeple") associated with them when they are completed. In my opinion, it has the perfect balance of strategy and luck. The tiles are drawn at random, and so a lot can hinge on getting the right one at the right time. At the same time, however, there are clearly strategic moves to be made. Playing with more then two players can even lead to some interesting cooperative behaviour - and occasional back-stabbing - as temporary alliances form over shared goals. You can obviously sabotage other people's strategies too (a favourite move of mine is to hijack other people's cities) but I don't leave a game of Carcassonne feeling as picked on as after a game of "Settler's of Catan". I also think that the length of the game is just right. "Puerto Rico" is another great game by the the same people (I think) but I always end a game feeling like it was over one or two turns too soon.
Today, we had a bit of a rare occurrence: a finished game without any holes in the middle! When you lay tiles, roads have to match road, cities match cities and fields match fields, so clearly if you get a hole where a specific tile needs to go, you will not always come across it. Normally we play with "The River" expansion, whereas today we just used the basic starting tile, so that might have contributed to the tightness of the layout. Anyway, the end result was quite pleasing, if such things please you. (They please me!)
I'm obviously not going to go through the rules here. (See the Carcassonne Wikipedia entry for a summary. In reading this entry, I just learnt that they have changed the rules for farmers and fields, plus there's now an iOS Carcassonne App, which I will have to check out!) Suffice it to say that if you like board games - or someone you know does - and you are short of Christmas present ideas, you can do a lot worse than getting a copy of Carcassone.
If you already have Carcassonne, I can recommend a couple of the expansions, which are particularly good: Inns and Cathedrals and Traders and Builders.