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Toys and Tabletop Games

The best tabletop and board game gifts for analog gamers

From dungeon crawling to zombies to Prohibition-era ghostbusting, these tabletop games combine traditional real-world cards and dice with companion apps and video game themes.

Dan Ackerman/CNET

Step away from the Monopoly board. Put down that game controller. There's a new breed of increasingly popular board games that ditch the tired mechanics of Life, Sorry, Risk or other stodgy throwbacks. Many take just enough of a cue from modern video games to include companion apps that run on phones, tablets or laptops, handling much of the stat-counting, card shuffling and other minutiae that can scare people off from tabletop gaming.

The themes are, not surprisingly, often focused on Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy, zombie attacks, sci-fi battles and Lovecraftian supernatural hijinks. Lots of the latter, with eldritch monsters and ancient evils forever poking their way through the veil into 1920s New England.

Here are some favorites, any one of which can turn game night into an epic multihour adventure. Got your own suggestions? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

Star Wars: Imperial Assault, $89

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The best Star Wars game I've played in years isn't a video game, it's this tabletop strategy game, where rebel heroes fight through various skirmishes with Imperial forces. There's a fantastic companion app that not only teaches you how to play, it handles the storytelling and enemy placement, too. The miniatures are fantastic, and include a giant AT-ST, and sold-separately add-ons and expansions can add dozens of new figures. Fun fact -- this is actually a remixed version of a game called Descent: Journeys in the Dark, so check that out if you want a game that plays like Imperial Assault, but with a D&D/Game of Thrones/fantasy theme. 

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Mansions of Madness, $89

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One of my favorites, this is another giant-box-game, because it includes tons of floor tiles with which to create a haunted mansion, plus dozens of plastic miniatures for investigators and monsters. The vibe is definitely old-school Lovecraft, and this board game actually requires you to use its companion app, which creates the layout, spawns monsters and even adds sound effects. 

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Arkham Horror: The Card Game, $25

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A stripped-down version of the Lovecraftian game subgenre. This is strictly a card-based game, so no map tiles or plastic figures. Even so, it has amazing narrative storytelling and laying out location cards on the table gives players a clear picture of what's going on and where. 

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Fallout: The Board Game, $50

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The new Fallout 76 video game not doing it for you? Don't feel bad, it's not hitting the right note with a lot of people. As an alternative, may I suggest this expansive board-game version, which feels much more like a traditional Fallout game. It's got factions, settlements, super mutants, buying and selling, and of course, lots of deadly radiation. 

See at Amazon Read: Fallout 76: The wasteland is more fun with friends

Zombicide: Black Plague, $51

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There are a ton of different versions of this popular game series. Whether set in a prison, hospital or ruined city, they all have the same basic theme -- an ever-growing bunch of zombies chase your crew around a map as you race for the exit. This version is the universal favorite, taking the action back to medieval times. There's a handy iOS/Android app that can handle all the card-shuffling and inventory, leaving you free to focus on filling the game board with plastic zombies. If you want more of a Walking Dead vibe, there are also several very good Zombicide games set in modern times, such as Prison Outbreak or Rue Morgue

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Villainous, $39

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One of the bigger buzzed-about board games this holiday season, Villainous is a surprisingly deep and sophisticated game, bringing together an all-star team of Disney villains, each with their own objectives and custom mini game board. There's a lot of strategy so, it's best for older kids (10 and up) or adults, who will find this just as challenging as many high-brow strategy games. 

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Five Minute Marvel, $11

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A great card-based game for playing with kids, as each round has a hard 5-minute limit. Various Marvel heroes go through a giant villains deck, matching symbols and playing special cards, all in real time against a 5-minute timer. I liked that besides the usual Spider-Man and Captain America gang, it also included up-and-comers like Spider Gwen and Squirrel Girl. 

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Deep Madness, $130 and up

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You'll have to hit eBay or a resale shop to find this giant game. So far it's sold through two printings on Kickstarter, but there are no plans for a retail release. Trapped in an underwater research station, one to six players avoid flooded rooms and, you guessed it, Lovecraftian monsters. Derivative, but great atmosphere and art direction. 

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Shadows in the Forest, $24

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A really unique kid-friendly game that's played in near-total darkness. Little shadowlings hide in a forest made up of 3D tree standees, while one player controls a tiny, battery powered lantern, and tries to find them all. Great physicality, between the 3D trees, the shadowling figures and the little lantern, and unlike a lot of other games, it takes no more than five minutes to learn the basics. 

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Gloomhaven, $139

Andrew Gebhart

This behemoth of a board game is expensive and occasionally hard to find, but it's worth the effort and expense to explore a rich world spiced with deep, strategic combat. Gloomhaven replaces the traditional dice-based combat with a card-based system that reduces randomness and works stunningly well. While daunting at first, the gameplay turns out to be a surprisingly simple matter of picking the right cards at the right times to beat up the big scary monsters blocking your path forward. When not fighting, you can move the surprisingly rich story forward with choose-your-own-adventure style moments that reveal the interesting depth and complexity of this well-crafted and unique fantasy world. -- Andrew Gebhart

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