Family Game Night is a tradition that makes many people shudder, bringing back memories of endless, monotonous Monopoly marathons or your sister throwing the board at you every time she lost. But as a tabletop gamer, I have to stick up for the worthwhile aspects of this idea. The problem isn’t playing games itself, but the fact that most of the games people are familiar with aren’t very good. In fact, a lot of them are downright terrible. Your family deserves better games! Below are a few that either I have played and enjoyed or family versions of my favorites.
Settlers of Catan Junior: Settlers of Catan is the ultimate gateway drug to higher-level board games. For some reason, most the people I know who are hard-core board game players were introduced through Settlers. If you aren’t familiar with it, players in Settlers work to build cities and towns connected by roads. You build these roads, cities and towns by collecting and then trading cards that represent different resources, such as wood, bricks, wheat, sheep or ore. It’s so popular both because it’s very well-designed and social. For kids, it also helps develop planning skills – like Risk, the decisions players make at the beginning of the game have a major influence on their long-term success. The kids’ version of Settlers is simpler than the adult version, with fewer variables to handle, but maintains the same idea. Two words of warning though. One – this game takes a long time to set up and younger kids may get impatient. Two – this game can get very competitive and may not be the best for squabbling siblings. The game recommends it for kids ages six through nine. There’s also a game called the Kids of Catan that seems like an even more simplified version for kids as young as four, but I haven’t played it and it doesn’t have good reviews.
Ticket to Ride: A lot of kids are hard-core into trains and this game is all about railroads. Players are Golden Age railroad barons and (depending on which version you get) are racing to build railroad lines across North America or Europe. This game is great for practicing counting and spatial comprehension skills, because you need to collect a certain number of different colored cards to complete different routes. The board game version of this is quite expensive, but it’s also 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, the app is 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 I.
Dixit: This game is all about imagination. Each player gets a set of cards, each with a surreal, fairy-tale-like image on it. The player whose turn it is has to create a title for their card that is neither too obvious or obscure. The other players then each pick one of their own cards out of their hand that most closely matches the title and places it facedown. All of the cards are mixed up and flipped over and then Everyone but the initial player then votes on which is the “correct” image for the title. If either no one or everyone guesses the right card, the original player doesn’t get any points. Players get points if they either guess the right card and/or if their own cards Recieves votes. What’s fascinating about the game is that you have to think very lyrically and metaphorically, both to create a title and pick the right image to go with someone else’s title. The cards themselves are small works of art and are sure to intrigue children who are into the slightly darker fantasy stories or fairy tales. The game also doesn’t require reading or writing, although you’ll probably end up with some very interesting titles if you play with much younger kids. The game says it is appropriate for kids six and up. Because it’s just pictures, it’s particularly good for kids who have good imaginations, but haven’t developed strong reading skills yet.
Quirkle: I hate Scrabble, which is annoying for a writer because people think you should be good at it. But I like Quirkle. Quirkle is like Scrabble but with colors and shapes. 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. In terms of skills, Quirkle helps 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.
Castle Panic / Forbidden Desert / Forbidden Island: All three of these games are cooperative games, where players work with each other 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. In each game, the players have a different purpose: in Castle Panic, it’s to build a castle; in Forbidden Desert, collect pieces of a flying machine before you die in the desert; and in Forbidden Island, to retrieve sacred treasures before the island sinks. Because you have to strategize together, cooperative games are inherently social and a great introduction to strategic brainstorming and teamwork. In addition, slightly younger kids can play than could otherwise because you’re supposed to be helping each other. It’s also empowering for kids to be able to suggest to an adult a better or different course of action. All three games are recommended for 10 and up, but I suspect that you could play with younger kids, considering they are cooperative.
Family Apples to Apples: 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 is a card with an adjective on it. Everyone except the person whose turn it is picks a noun card out of their hand that “best” matches the adjective. The turn-taker than picks the one that they like the most. The key to this game is figuring out exactly what the turn-taker will define as “best,” whether that’s literal, ridiculous, hopelessly dark, or something else entirely. It’s perfect to play with family members because it’s helpful to know the other players well and results in a much more fun game. Because it uses a really different skill set than most games – reading people – it’s also good for folks who aren’t necessarily good at board games. While my dad generally stays away from board games, he kicks ass at Apples to Apples. The family edition has the same basic principle as the original version, but more family-friendly references. Being that one of my family members who shall remain unnamed didn’t know who Carl Sagan was, the more recent references may help the younger adults too. 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 and I’m sure that they can accommodate their parents as long as you’re willing to play along.