However large the array on your Kallax shelves of sophisticated board games, there comes a time when you're searching for something appealing but simple. It's a family gathering, perhaps, and elderly relatives are clamouring for something reassuringly familiar that children can also play. Inevitably, someone suggests Monopoly. None of the family is especially fond of the game; most have memories of past plays deteriorating into interminably long games where most players lost interest way before a winner was declared. But Monopoly has the key advantage of being familiar territory: everyone knows how to play because all you have to do is roll dice and move and take an uncomplicated action on the square you happen to land on.
Holiday Fever from Bullfrog Games isn't going to win any awards for innovative mechanics but designer Evan Mark Shelline and artist Thomas Hilley have succeeded in producing a game that is very easily understood and playable by all and which offers a very palatable alternative to Monopoly, particularly for Christmas family gatherings.
The board itself has that 'reassuring' Monopoly look: a 40-space track running around the edge of a square board. There are positions earmarked for card decks to be placed - as per Chance and Community Chest - and the one obvious novelty is a calendar showing the days in December leading up to the 25th. Gameplay is intuitively simple: as in Monopoly, you roll two dice, move the distance indicated and do what it says on the space you land in. If you roll a double, you get the bonus of $10 times whatever number you rolled. Players will at this point be looking around for cash from a 'banker' but here's the first way in which this game departs from traditional fare: there are no coins, cash tokens or paper money in Holiday Fever - when you receive or pay money, you record the transaction on your individual scoresheet. Prepare for initial howls of protest at this. Expect complaints that people just want to play a light family game, they don't want to spend the afternoon book-keeping. Happily, the accountancy required in this game is undemanding. You could at a pinch substitute paper money (pull it out of that old Monopoly set) but that would mean you wouldn't be able to take advantage of one of the end-game scoring subtleties of Holiday Fever, where debts can be offset by the Christmas Spirit stars you mark off in the course of play. You can entice recalcitrant recordists to pick up their pens by telling them they each need to draw a Christmas tree shape in the space in the centre of their score sheet. More on that anon...
The idea in this seasonally themed game for 2–6 players is that you are running a festive business and you are accumulating Christmas gifts as you move around the board. When you buy a gift card, you draw a value card at the same time and you place the value face down below the gift. No-one knows therefore how much the gift you've just acquired is worth (each value card could be anything from $20 to $500). If your gift card represents coal, then the value is negative (a debt rather than a deposit). The Naughty-or-Nice cards that you'll pick up periodically are this game's Chance cards: some you'll be required to play immediately, others you can set aside face down for future use. Holiday Fever is a good natured roll & move accumulation game where you'll each be trying to assess how well you are doing in comparison to the other players. There are some opportunities for competitive interaction (stealing cards from opponents) and you pay a Monopoly-style rent penalty ($200) whenever you land on the square that represents an opponent's business. Likewise, you collect $200 when you land on your own business space.
Holiday Fever incorporates various festivities-related real-world side activities, including a spell of carol singing and invitations to make a Christmas Speech (to earn some Christmas Spirit). Shop spaces that let you buy a gift usually also offer you the option to buy Christmas lights or ornaments. This is where your sketched Christmas Tree comes in. If you buy a light or ornament, you draw it on your tree. If and when you've bought three of each, you have fully decorated your tree and you switch your pawn over from the track running around the edge of the board to the December calendar. Your turns are now all on the calendar and the game will end when you get to the 25th, tho' you have to land there on an exact roll.
Play for all players automatically moves to the December calendar once all the gift or value cards have gone but push-your-luck gamers perusing the board may quietly calculate that a potentially winning strategy may be to concentrate quite early on in qualifying to move over to that track. Being first to get to the 25th doesn't automatically make you the winner but it stands you in good stead: in addition to the $500 bonus for being first to get to Christmas Day, you score $100 for each of the six decorations on your tree (almost certainly more than you paid for them) and there are squares of the track that give further cash payouts. On the downside, there are two squares (Dec 3 and Dec 13) that lose you one of your decorations and bounce you back to the main track...
You're likely to have a lot more fun with Holiday Fever than with a traditional family game of Monopoly, not least because Holiday Fever doesn't overstay its welcome. Even with six players, you can expect a game to take less than an hour, and if a player makes an early dash for the calendar track then the game will probably take no more than 30 minutes. Plenty of time then to pull some crackers and have another serving of Christmas pudding.