What is it about the family games we reach for again and again? They have to be simple enough for children to learn quickly, but there needs to be something about them that draws in adults. They have to be absorbing enough that it’s fun to play, even if you don’t win. And they have to encourage family members to interract, whether it’s competing for position, reacting with a groan or a giggle from an unexpected twist in the game, or trying to be stealthy about a strategy.
In case you are looking for new ones to try, here are 10 great games for families.
This delightfully designed game teaches preschoolers the rudiments of turn taking, spinner spinning, color matching and stealing each other’s acorns. It’s quick to play an individual round, but there’s no way your children are going to want to stop at just one.
Here’s one to set off the nostalgia. The rattle of yellow and red pieces pieces falling after someone pulls the blue trap door is a sound that rang through many parents’ childhoods. (It hit the market in 1974.) Anyway, the falling pieces are definitely part of the pleasure of this simple strategy game for two players.
There’s luck in this card game – you never know what cards you’ll draw – but also strategy, in how you play your cards, particularly when it comes to arranging number cards in addition equations to draw more cards. Combined, it makes this game a lot of fun for a broad age range.
The object of “Rat-a-Tat Cat” is to have the four cards in your hand add up to the lowest number possible. Getting there involves memory, arithmetic, and sometimes holding a poker face. Adults enjoy playing this game, and the card reveals at the end are occasions for family groans and giggles around the table.
Your kids don’t need to be reading for long before they can participate in this game of word associations. Before playing, you should go through the deck and purge any card that someone in the game is unlikely to understand. (There tend to be some dated pop culture refrerences that may confuse both kids and adults).
One thing that makes “Apples to Apples” a great game for the pandemic: it doesn’t take much tweaking to make it playable on via video chat. Everybody on the chat has to have access to a physical game, and you need to set up a Google doc that everyone can use anonymously. You also need to figure out what happens when two people play the same card at the same time (which shouldn’t happen very often).
This two-player game of hunting hidden ships on a grid is perfect for video chat. No tweaks required. All you need is a set at each end, and you can play over any distance. And while adults have a small advantage when playing against kids, kids can and do prevail anyway, which is unusual for a game that involves this much thinking.
There are games where you follow the features of the board: “Chutes and Ladders,” for example. There are games where you create the features of the board: “Scrabble,” say. “Labyrinth” is a game where you alter the board with every turn, pulling sliders to alter the configuration of a maze. While the principles are simple enough for kids, the logic of the shifting game will challenge adults too. It’s really fun.
Don’t bother with the “Junior Labyrinth” version of this game. It isn’t any simpler or easier than regular “Labyrinth,” just smaller.
“Mille Bornes” is French for “thousand milestones.” This card game, first published in 1962, replicates the ups and downs of French auto racing, complete with wrecks, flat tires, and other mishaps. For those who are fans of mid-century graphic design, each card is a period pleasure. Players race to accumulate cards up to a thousand, while dealing out “hazard” cards to other players, and ward off the “hazards” other people play. It’s fun and entertaining. You may find those elegant cards end up looking pretty frayed and shabby before too long.
The official way to play the game is to race to put letter tiles into crosswords on the table.
It usually needs some adaptations in order to make it an enjoyable contest between people of different age groups. When my kids were younger, we sometimes played it as a cooperative game, working together to lay out interlocking words and use up all the tiles.
When my son turned 12, we started playing it competitively, with the modification that he was allowed to make up words as long as he could pronounce them. (I remember belly laughs from those games.) Now my kids are teenagers, the only modification we do is a ban on two-letter words.
There is a “My First Bananagrams” game. It has fewer, larger letters than the original, and includes tiles which have two letters combined into a sound. I would skip it and just play around with a regular game.
I love games where you build things, and in this game, you build towns and local economies, making use of the materials in your lands. It’s complex, and time consuming. Allow two hours for things to play out. Different players compete for space and access to resources as they try to accumulate victory points. But even if you don’t do well in the overall contest, you can get satisfaction from completing side goals, such as building a town, or a long road.
There is a “Catan Junior” game, good for kids as young as 6. Many people like it. It simplifies the game, and shortens it to 40 minutes or so, but you still get to build things.
Originally published September 2020
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