Between a pandemic, political controversy and general holiday-season stress, many families have enough friction to heat a house in winter. So why add to the conflict with competitive board games? Luckily, a growing number of games are purely cooperative. Players band together to overcome other obstacles, whether that's a time limit, like in Magic Maze, or an evil sorcerer or dragon, like in Gloomhaven.
If you're looking for the perfect games to keep the holidays bright and the family happy, these cooperative board games are the best around.Get the CNET Now newsletter
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Read more: Best 2-player board games for the 2020 holidaysDavid Priest/CNET
7th Continent has a fantastic concept at its heart: Players explore a mysterious continent by flipping one "terrain" card at a time, slowly revealing craggy islands, dangerous landscapes and mystical wonders. The goal of each game is a sort of mystery: You and your teammates have been cursed, and you need to find a way to lift the curse before it kills you. What follows is a cooperative game of survival and exploration unlike almost any other you'll find.
Part of what makes 7th Continent so appealing is its accessibility. You can set up a game in a matter of minutes, "save" midway through, pack up quickly and resume later. What's more, the pacing keeps at a quick clip, thanks to clever card mechanics and impressive game design organization. That means you can find one of the unique cards out of the literally hundreds that come in the box in mere seconds.
If you're looking for a fun exploration game with elements of role-playing -- something that splits the difference between a Mansions of Madness-type board game and a Gloomhaven-type lite RPG (which can take over a hundred hours to complete), 7th Continent might be perfect for you.Sit Down! Games
Magic Maze is about four wizards shoplifting from a mall while trying to avoid being caught. Two problems get in the way of a simple escape. First, players can't talk. And second, players don't control individual wizards; they control individual movements. For example, I might be able to make any wizard "turn left" and my wife might be able to make any wizard "walk forward." But if I'm not paying attention to a wizard facing the wrong direction, the whole caper can go awry.
Players do have a form of communication, though. They can pass around a single pawn, though its meaning is fluid. It could mean a player needs to pay attention to a wizard one moment, or perhaps he or she needs to stop moving so someone else can take over. This cooperative board game has a clever dynamic that'll stop your family from talking for 30 minutes, only to have them discussing the family game night's cooperative victory for hours afterward.Greater Than Games
Spirit Island twists colonizing games on their head. You play the role of magic spirits and your job is to work with the native population to fend off the colonizers who'd inevitably destroy the land. This fresh take on an old theme aside, Spirit Island does a good job of building tension well as your powers grow and the colonizers move across the land. In this cooperative board game, you need to work together with other players because you have only so much energy to spend each turn.
Spirit Island includes a few different scenarios, with variable enemy behaviors and increasing difficulty, to keep the game feeling fresh. Plus, the different spirits have distinct abilities and play styles, so you can continually find a new way to play with teammates. The learning curve on Spirit Island is a little steep, but once you're familiar, most of the rules are intuitive and you can focus on unleashing the full power of your spirit on those dastardly invaders. - Andrew GebhartCzech Games
In Letter Jam, players receive a series of cards with letters on them, but they can't see which letters. Instead, everyone sets up a stand facing away from them, so their teammates can see what they have. Then, over the course of the game, players take turn spelling words with the letters they can see, forcing other players to guess their own letters through a clever game of deduction.
For word lovers, this is a great game with endless replay value. And you get to show off your impressive vocabulary to boot.Dan Ackerman
Mansions of Madness was one of the first board games I truly fell in love with. While growing up, I always gravitated toward Clue, and then I found this complex, narrative-driven, Lovecraft-inspired mystery game that came with a booklet of varied narratives to play out. The problem was, the first edition of Mansions of Madness required intense setup, and one player had to be "the keeper," a sort of dungeon master playing against everyone else. Now, however, with the game's second edition, players can cooperate in every mission with an app filling the role of the keeper. Whether you're investigating a disappearance in an old mansion or interrogating townspeople to find the one who's secretly attempting to summon an ancient evil, Mansions of Madness remains one of the best mystery games ever released -- and yes, I think it tops Clue.Plaid Hat Games
The best zombie movies have one thing in common: The biggest threat comes from the other humans, and zombies just serve to bring that distrust to the forefront. Dead of Winter is a collaborative game that nails this dynamic. It's a zombie game in which you work together to head out into town, gather supplies and defend your colony against the growing hordes of undead looking for a snack. You're constantly faced with tough decisions about how best to use your resources. Do you use that fuel you just found to keep yourself safe while you're traveling? Or add it to bolster the dwindling defense of the town? You control a couple of villagers with unique abilities, but one wrong step could send any of them to their doom. On top of all of that, you need to constantly look at your fellow players with a suspicious eye. Everyone has a secret objective to accomplish, but one person in the group might be an outright traitor. The result is a wonderfully tense battle in which you're paying close attention to everyone's turn to look for that telltale sign of betrayal, while doing your best to keep your own underhanded intentions hidden. - Andrew GebhartDan Ackerman
We've written extensively about Gloomhaven already, and for good reason: This cooperative game is one of the best board games to fuse RPG elements, dungeon crawling and classic board game mechanics. You and your friends or family can pour well over a hundred hours into Gloomhaven, exploring a vast world and unlocking nearly two dozen playable characters -- each with impressively deep skill development. And it's all facilitated by a game made of cardboard and paper. Of course, if you add the app, it makes the gameplay even smoother than before. And if you really want to play the most accessible version, it's worth checking out Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, which gives a well-written and accessible taste of the full game's rich world to players hesitant to commit to such a massive game.Space Cowboys
If you think a huge game like Gloomhaven might be a bit much for a week or two of vacation, an episodic narrative game like Time Stories might be more up your alley for a family game night.
Time Stories is a wonder of a game. With a simple deck of cards, this cooperative board game catapults you across dimensions and spacetime, guides you through beautifully rendered settings and brings you face-to-face with Lovecraftian monsters -- and that's just in the first campaign.
In Time Stories, players investigate mysteries in settings ranging from ancient Egypt to zombie-infested suburbs. The stories change with your decisions, and your ability to solve the given mystery depends on your cooperation with teammates, your problem-solving skills and your ability to adapt to new elements introduced on the fly by the game.
Time Stories isn't perfect: You can find plenty of chat boards online with fans debating which stories are best, and which could've been better balanced. But even small unbalances ultimately stem from the game's massive ambition, and it's hard not to feel swept up by that ambition every time you sit down to play.
For more great games, check out our favorite board games to gift to friends and family this holiday, the best two-player board games for the year and the best family games for the holidays.