If the world was about to be impacted by an asteroid the size of Manhattan and the only way to divert it was to play a game of Monopoly with five eight-year-olds, I’d have to seriously consider letting Earth perish. Although, perhaps playing the game might slow time down enough so as to seem like an eternity. Who knows, maybe there are a group of dinosaurs still trying to finish a game somewhere in an alternate time/space reality – the fateful meteor, frozen in the sky, hovering, glittering, as one of them tries to roll snake-eyes, gripping the dice with their tiny little three clawed forelegs, so they can finally land on Boardwalk.
I’ve been aware of Monopoly’s curious effect on time for awhile. I’ve been meaning to run my theory by some of my physicist friends, but no one has gotten back to me.
Luckily there are some great other games out there to keep my kids and me entertained while I’m waiting. I have a few criteria that I consider when recommending a game to someone.
How difficult is it to pick up?
This is an important question, and one you have to ask when you are considering introducing a game to a group of people, especially kids. If the game is so complex that it involves a frustrating hour of misery before you even begin, then why bother? I am convinced the age recommendations you see on the sides of most games – the ones that caution: “Ages eight and up” etc. – are derived by a group of masochistic scientists in white coats who test children to see at which age they stop throwing the board off the table in a frustrated meltdown. You have to know your kids and whether or not they can handle the stress of not winning.
How fun is it to play?
This is a big one and, obviously, relative to who you are and what kind of games you like. My wife is a killer backgammon player – I have yet to beat her, ever – yet she is not a big fan of games like Magic the Gathering with all of its variability, changing rules, and different game mechanics. The other aspect of Magic (and the reason I don’t include it in this review) is that it’s a serious money drain. The games I’m reviewing here are ones that involve a single purchase and can be played in under an hour.
What is the re-playability?
This is important when some of these games can cost upwards of $50. If I’m going to spend that kind of money on a diversion, I want to know that my family is going to get some enjoyment out of it for years to come. If the game is fun once but plays the same every time, it’s going to get old quick, (see Monopoly). So the variability of game play makes for a game that you can come back to and have a different experience each time.
There are lots of great games out there. This is just a small sample of the ones I’m familiar with. I recommend finding a game store near you and doing some research of your own.
1 | Rat-a-Tat-Cat
This is a fun and easy-to-learn card game that involves learning and using numbers without really having to do math. It also teaches kids to remember where certain cards are. This game is great for kids around kindergarten-age to about eight.
The rules are simple: you draw cards from the deck and replace the higher cards in your hand with the lowest cards. Once you think you have the lowest hand you say, “Rat-a-tat-cat.” Everyone else gets one more turn and then you reveal your hand. Whoever has the lowest hand wins.
“Whee,” I hear you saying.
Indeed, if you were to stick with these rules the game would be fun for maybe a week, and by fun I mean it will keep your five-year-old from trashing the house for 10 minutes. The cool thing to do with this game is to change up the rules as your child gets better at reaching the objective.
Favorite rule changes at our house include: playing for the highest card total instead of the lowest, and “Magic Number.” Have your child pick a number between zero – the lowest possible number total – and 36 – the highest possible number total – and have that be your goal. If you’re playful and creative you can stretch the re-playability of this game out from weeks to years.
2 | Ticket to Ride
If you like trains and maps, this is a fun game to play. Ticket to Ride has many different versions, with maps of Europe, Asia, India, the UK, Nordic countries, and the US. However, each one of the sets is a separate purchase and they run between $30 and $100.00 (expansion sets are available).
The object of the game is to complete certain routes from point A to point B on the map. Each person has cards that give them different routes to choose from; some are short, some are longer, and each one completed gives a bonus commensurate with the difficulty. With each person working toward a different goal the game is not directly competitive, but with all of the criss-crossing train lines there are strategic ways to block your opponents while advancing your cause.
Game play is fun with groups of three to five people. It’s fairly simple to learn, has some nuanced strategy, and excellent re-playability. I’ve only played the US map, but I like that there are different ways to advance to the goal. The game play can be fairly quick and it’s not too hard to learn. The game is sturdily constructed but the downside is that there are lots of small plastic pieces.
It’s nice to see the Sheriff of Nottingham getting his due without that pesky do-gooder Robin Hood stealing the spotlight. This is a fun game in which the Sheriff goes about his business of extorting the local merchants who are all just trying to make a buck at the market by selling their wares and sometimes a little contraband. The fun thing that sets this game apart from the others is that it involves a degree of bluffing. Each person gets to be both the sellers in the market and the Sheriff who is trying to catch them from sneaking in things that don’t belong.
My kids and I like to use funny accents for each of the characters. It’s also fun to watch the strategies that develop for lying about what you may or may not be bringing into the market. The game is different with each new person who plays as they bring their personality into the roles that get acted out. It can get a bit boring if it’s the same cast of characters every time, so we tend to break this one out when we have guests over.
4 | Catan
This may be the new gold standard of table-top games. Catan has many different formats and expansions with slight variables in the rules for each. Most of the additions and expansions I find cumbersome, making game play long and very involved. If you like that kind of thing and have a couple hours to kill playing a board game, than these additions are for you. Myself, I go for the basic game.
Good for three to five people, Catan is the perfect balance of several different gameplay mechanics. Each player has to gain resources that they get by strategic placement of their settlements on a hexagonal matrix. The map changes with each set-up of the game, so no two games have the same resource allocation. The probability of each die roll determines which resources each player gets so there is both an element of chance, but also certain strategic choices that can influence each player’s fortunes.
The value of particular resources changes as the game develops, so what might be an effective strategy at the beginning of the game may not lead you to victory at the end. There are many different ways that one can generate the points to win the game, meaning that the re-playability is high. New and different strategies continue to emerge as new combinations appear. This is my family’s go-to game lately.
This game has lots of little pieces. A fun house rule we have is that the winner cleans up. Nothing wipes the smirk off of a gloating winner’s face faster than the realization that they have about ten minutes of clean-up ahead of them while everyone else goes about their business
5 | Dominion
This one is interesting because it is really just a card game. There are no moving pieces, no board, no dice, just cards – lots and lots of cards. This is another fun game that involves a multi-phase series of mechanics to achieve victory. Different cards give you different access to resources. Some cards might give you extra money, some cards might give you an extra turn, and some might give you more land. At the end of the game, land equals victory. In the early part of the game, however, you have to generate money in order to gain more cards, which lets you do different things. At this stage, land is burdensome as it clogs up your hand.
There are many expansion sets to this game and each one has 20 to 30 different types of cards that change the rules a little bit. This one takes a little longer to learn. It has great re-playability though, as there are many many combinations of different cards that you can choose from to create unique playing experiences each time. This one can be played with just two people or up to six.
These are just a few examples of the family friendly table-top games out there. When you’re choosing a new one, know your tolerance for small pieces, convoluted rules and set-up, and whether the game is variable enough to justify its price tag. Don’t forget: games are supposed to be fun.