The holidays are meant to be a cheerful occasion, but that doesn’t mean everyone takes to the season with a smile on their face and mirth in their heart.
Be it exhausting travel, the bitter cold, lack of sunlight, never-ceasing Christmas carols in every shop, or friction with the relatives (protip: they say three topics never to discuss in polite conversation are politics, religion and finances), the holidays can be a stressful time for those who’d rather just get them over with.
If you want to escape to a new world, pass the time, get in some catharsis, or stay diplomatic with the fam, you can always turn to video games. Whether you're a Scrooge or a Cratchit, these titles – all relatively recent and easy to find, we assure you – can help you survive “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
Sid Meier’s Civilization VI
Platforms: PC, OS X
The end-of-year festivities tend to make us wax nostalgic about our accomplishments over the past 12 months and how we’d like to see ourselves progress in the coming year. Those same festivities can also make us want to cut off from everyone and hide behind a good video game.
Civilization VI lets you do both, giving you the chance to forge great dynasties through eras of growth, conflict and strategy while also being an addictive distraction set in the comfort of your gaming chair.
'One More Turn Syndrome' affects all who step into a game of Civ, and the latest entry in the long-running series is no exception. Prepare to watch evening play sessions accidentally turn into morning ones as you try to progress into the Industrial Era, set sights on economic prosperity, or plot world domination.
If you’re looking for a brain-tickling time sink to play alone or online with friends, you can’t go wrong getting a little Civilized.
Rayman Fiesta Run
Platforms: iOS, Android, Amazon Fire
Price: $2.99/£1.99/AU$4.49 (contains in-app purchases)
Nintendo’s recent stab at the freerunner genre may have its charms, but if we can spit a hot take for a moment: Ubisoft’s limbless weirdo Rayman has been doing Super Mario Run for longer, for cheaper, and with better results.
Rayman Fiesta Run takes a series of gorgeous, hand-drawn graphics and squeezes it into a portable device, allowing players to run, jump, glide, grind, slide, and smash through cartoon levels with the kind of fluidity that we just didn’t get from Nintendo’s take on mobile platforming.
Also, the bright and colorful visuals are paired with some genuinely delightful tunes that will not only lighten your spirits, but break up the monotony of hearing Mariah Carey's cover of “All I Want For Christmas is You” on the radio for the umpteenth time.
Platforms: PC, OS X, iOS, Android, Amazon Fire
Price: Free (contains in-app purchases)
Blizzard’s collectible card battler is all the fun of dusting off your old Magic: The Gathering decks from the attic to play with your cousins, minus having to stow a collection of musty cardboard somewhere or explain to said relatives how to calculate 'converted mana cost' or what the 'second main phase' is.
Hearthstone is the epitome of ‘easy to learn, hard to master,’ allowing for a variety of decks, playstyles, and strategies built entirely around a simple interface on your computer or mobile device.
On top of that, the game is truly free to play, allowing players to build up a collection of cards participating in casual weekly Brawls or grinding daily quests so you don't have to splurge a fortune on card packs.
(That said, some of the costlier adventure expansions do tempt our wallets with their fun single-player battles and powerful cards, but so goes the way of any CCG worth its salt.)
In short, card night with the family can just be a matter of sharing Battle.net tags and having at it. Otherwise, you can just scrimmage opponents online while holed up in your room. Your call.
Platforms: PC, OS X, Linux, PS4, Xbox One
Created almost solely by one developer, Stardew Valley serves as both a great farming sim and a good motivator for budding young game makers thinking of a good New Year’s resolution for 2017.
Inspired by the Harvest Moon series, Stardew Valley has players leave the stresses of city living to care for their grandfather’s ailing farm. From there, you can grow crops, raise animals, mine for precious minerals, and make an honest living off the land.
That’s only the beginning, however, as your newfound home in Stardew Valley is also host to caves to explore, NPCs to interact with, and even suitors to woo.
Combine that with little deadlines for progress other than your character’s physical limits and the passing of the seasons, and it’s almost frightening how fast you can lose time in this well-crafted, peaceful little sim.
No Man’s Sky
Platforms: PS4, PC
On the topic of small dev teams and gathering minerals in an expanded world, what’s more expansive than space?
Taking on entire solar systems to explore, No Man’s Sky sends players to the stars to make their mark in the universe, collecting resources and chronicling new planets and wildlife they discover along the way.
Granted, there was a share of controversy during the game’s arduous development, but No Man’s Sky won’t be a disappointment if you’re sold on the humble premise of drifting through the tranquil stretches of space to boldly go where no player has gone before.
Sometimes the stressful parts of the holidays make us wish we could hop in a starship and blast off forever and if there’s one thing No Man’s Sky does without skipping a beat, it’s let you fly as far away as you can and never look back.
Pokemon Sun & Moon
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo 2DS
Niantic Labs’ mobile craze Pokemon Go may be the monster catcher that took the world by storm this summer, but when it’s icy, grey, or just plain sucky outside, going for a walk to catch some Weedles just sounds like a bad time.
Instead, why not take in the latest entry in the core Pokemon games, Sun & Moon, from the comfort of, say, a layer of warm blankets indoors?
The tropical setting of the Alola region not only gives North Hemisphere-types a chance to feel they're somewhere warm, but the whacky, colorful cast of characters – both human and pocket monster – will have you forgetting all about that freezing driveway you should be shoveling right now.
Oh, and this is a real Pokemon game we’re talking about, so expect the holidays to be gone in a blink before you even approach a fraction of catching ‘em all.
These things are loooooooong.
Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC
Finding solace in catching happy little monsters is nice and all, but sometimes the stress of the holidays just gets to you and the only course of action is to blow off a little steam.
And when it comes to blowing off steam (and demon heads), you can’t do better than this year’s DOOM. We have to spell DOOM in all-caps because that’s how it’s styled by game developer id Software, but also because of how DOOM makes you feel.
Want to let out your inner Ebenezer and go all misanthropic on the hordes of the umbral plane? Want to burn up tension by burning holes through unsightly monstrosities and tearing them limb from limb? Want to do it while one of the year’s most kickass metal soundtracks blasts out the speakers? Sounds like you need some DOOM in your life, friend.
Those who demand a tough game – both in difficulty and tone – to compliment their tough holidays deserve DOOM. It’s kind of like Die Hard: we keep telling ourselves it’s a Christmas classic when we really just love the action so darn much.
Dark Souls III
Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC
Speaking of wallowing in your holiday woes, no game series does “wallowing” and “woe” better than From Software’s Souls series, and its latest work is arguably its best.
You don’t necessarily need prior experience in the world of Dark Souls to enjoy Dark Souls III. You just need a little will, some courage in your heart, and as much patience as you can muster.
When all is said and done, however, you’ll find the thrilling challenge, gorgeous backdrops, somber lore, heart-racing boss encounters, and sense of exploration are as rewarding as they are unparalleled.
If you’re in a miserable (or masochistic) mood this holiday, why not channel it into a game that will not only dole its own forms of pain, but give you a far more constructive – if not sometimes wonderfully horrifying – experience to go with it?
If you’re still a big ol’ Scrooge after that, you can ruin other players’ holidays in the multiplayer mode, which has you forcefully invading their games just to take them out. Ha! Misanthropy!
Oh, and the recent DLC expansion, Ashes of Ariandel, is set in the kind of treacherous wintry landscape that makes the five inches of sleet outside our home feel like a picnic. Perspective, we guess.
Platforms: PC, OS X, Linux, Android, Apple TV, iOS, Windows Phone, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One, Raspberry Pi, Wii U, Gear VR, Amazon Fire
Price: Varies by platform
We know you know what Minecraft is. If you’ve ever walked into Walmart, or gone on the internet, or opened up YouTube, or seen a child playing on their parent’s tablet, you know what Minecraft is.
You almost certainly own a device that plays Minecraft, too. It probably even already has Minecraft on it. Quick, stop reading and check to be absolutely sure you don’t already own two or three copies of this game.
For the five remaining people on Earth unaware of Minecraft: Mojang’s procedurally generated open-world explorer lets you build your own structures from scratch as you assemble tools and resources, brave treacherous wildlife, spelunk in self-excavated caverns, and team up with friends to construct envious wonders.
It’s a great, family-friendly way to help keep the young (and young at heart) engaged and creative this holiday, or just be a welcome distraction of your own to pass the days until New Year’s.
The Jackbox Party Pack(s)
Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Apple TV
Jackbox's series of game bundles is a silver bullet for getting through any awkward family gathering or dull holiday party.
Rather than sit thumb-twiddling around a fireplace and avoiding hair-trigger conversation traps, (remember what we said earlier) Jackbox’s bevy of whacky digital board games are the best way to have fun with the family without bringing up, say, any recent major elections.
Each the three currently available Party Packs contain five games that take trivial pursuits like, er, Trivial Pursuit and throw them out the window.
These contain some surefire hits like Drawful, where players try to guess bizarre titles of even more bizarre drawings made by players (pictured above), Fibbage, a trivia game where all but one of the answers is a lie written by players intended to slip each other up, and the ultimate crowd pleaser Quiplash, which is like a 1v1 version of Apples to Apples with participants voting on their favorite player-written response to a humorous prompt.
Jackbox’s Party Pack games not only work well with the fam because the games are easy to learn (and get a laugh out of), but also because each player needs only a screen to join in on the host’s game.
A phone, tablet or laptop will do so long as it can connect to the internet, and if everyone brought a smartphone with them (and let’s be honest, they did) you won’t be screwed for controllers.
Trust us, a round of Fibbage is way better than talking about the weather again because you'd rather not bring up one of the multiple elephants in the room that holiday get-togethers are sure to spawn.
- Need a last-minute gift? Check out our top buying guides