Everyone has their terrible family game night story. From my sister-in-law as a kid throwing the Monopoly board at my husband (who probably cheated) to the game of Risk that never, ever ended, it’s easy to think that board games aren’t worth your time. But the problem isn’t family game night itself – it’s that most older games are just awful. In addition, most “educational” games for kids are badly designed.
Your family deserves better games! As a genuine board game geek that has spent many an hour playing the best and worst games out there, I’ve honed a good sense of what makes a great family game night. Here are eight games for family game night that are genuinely fun for everyone, from little kids to adults.
Settlers of Catan is the ultimate board game gateway drug. In Settlers, players work to build cities and towns connected by roads. You build these roads, cities, and towns by collecting and then trading cards that represent wood, bricks, wheat, sheep or ore. It combines simplicity, well-designed gameplay, and friendship-ending competition.
The kids’ version of Settlers is simpler than the adult version, with fewer variables to handle. But it still requires significant strategic thinking. Two words of warning: this game takes a long time to set up and the competition could lead to siblings screaming at each other. Take your tolerance for both of those things to heart.
The game has a recommended age range of kids ages six through nine. (Older than nine can play the original version.) There’s also a game called the Kids of Catan. Based on the reviews, it seems vastly oversimplified and not very good.
A game that will satisfy both the train-fanatic and everyone else. In Ticket to Ride, players are Golden Age railroad barons racing to build railroad lines across a continent. For kids, this game is great for practicing counting and spatial comprehension skills.
If you want to play this game on the go, it’s available in a multi-player phone app. You can play with people nearby with Bluetooth (for multiple devices) or pass-and-play (for one device). Because it doesn’t require Internet access, it’s great for long car trips, train rides or plane flights.
The game says it is for ages eight and up, although I bet you could play it with a younger kid who is good at following directions. I’ve even involved my three-year-old in a game between my husband and me.
This game is all about imagination and creativity. Each player gets a set of cards, each with a surreal image on it. While the directions are a bit more complex than this, the main idea is to match an image with a similarly abstract title for that image.
To win, you have to think metaphorically. While playing it doesn’t require reading or writing, you do need to be able to think in a literary fashion. The game says it is appropriate for kids six and up, but you’ll probably end up with very obvious or confusing titles if you play with kids on the younger end.
In many ways, Quirkle is Scrabble with shapes. But it’s so much more. Instead of creating words, you create matching patterns, like a block version of poker. The bright colors on the black blocks are strikingly pretty and make it easy to spot potential patterns. Quirkle helps kids with visual analysis, strategy, and pattern-matching. Because it doesn’t involve reading, it’s also good for kids with weaker reading skills. The manufacturer recommends the game for kids six and up.
These two games are cooperative games, where players work together rather than competing. But don’t expect a round of kumbaya – the board is a much more challenging competitor than you would be towards each other. In fact, in good cooperative games, the players lose or nearly lose most of the time.
Because you have to strategize together, cooperative games are inherently social. They’re also a great introduction to strategic brainstorming and teamwork. Because you’re helping each other, slightly younger kids can also join in the fun. Both games are recommended for 10 and up, but I suspect that you could play with younger kids too.
If you’re looking for cooperative games for younger kids, Peaceable Kingdom makes some lovely and genuinely fun ones. Playing Hoot Owl Hoot, players need to get a family of owls back to their nest before the sun rises. Unlike adult cooperative games, the game is actually weighed in favor of the players. But if you play with zero strategy – as small children often do – you can definitely lose. One time we had a total meltdown because “the baby owl didn’t get back to the nest!” This game is for four and up, although some three-year-olds could probably play.
Another one for the much younger set, this cute game is still fun for adults. Plus, it’s blessedly short (most of the time). Each player gets a set of tongs that looks like a squirrel. Flicking the spinner determines what color acorn you pick on that turn. Whoever collects an acorn of each color wins.
In addition to the random aspect of the spinner, there is at least a little strategy with the ability to “steal” from other players. If you have a kind little one like I do, you may want to reframe “stealing” as “borrowing” though! This is one of the few (tolerable) games that’s appropriate for kids who are three and up.
Apples to Apples is one of my favorite party games. It’s extremely easy to pick up, anyone can join in or drop out without a problem, and it’s straight-up fun. Each round, there’s a card with an adjective on it. Everyone except the turn-taker picks a noun card out of their hand that “best” matches the adjective. The turn-taker picks the card that they like the most.
The key to this game is figuring out exactly what the turn-taker will define as “best.” It could be literal, ridiculous, dark, or something else entirely. Because you already know their sense of humor, it’s perfect to play with family members. In addition, it uses a different skill set than most games and is good for folks who “don’t play games.” While my dad is epically bad at other games, he kicks ass at Apples to Apples.
The family edition runs on the same principles as the original version, but has more family-friendly references. Recommended for ages eight and up.
This is only a small selection of the great games that families can play together. Wil Wheaton’s web-show TableTop walks viewers through a different game each episode and has covered a number of family-friendly games. (Although they have done a number of adult-only games too!) The PermieKids site has ecology-based cooperative card games.
If you want to get really creative, you can even role-play with your kid in a way that’s more dragons than tea sets using Cory Doctrow’s article on DMing for Your Toddler. Or you can make up your own games. Kids are great at it; I’m sure that they can accommodate their parents as long as you’re willing to play along.