My dad taught me to play chess when I was 4 or 5 years old. It is one of my earliest and most enduring memories of my dad and I doing something together. I recall that he used to start the game without his queen to give me a better chance and perhaps to not discourage me with continuous crushing defeat. I also suspect that he was largely playing against himself half the time, prompting better moves and discouraging terrible ones. I remember a holiday we took at the sea and ‘winning’ my first game against him. Handicapped and accommodating as he was, I was rewarded with a shiny 20c piece (a lot of money in those days!) and a trip to the corner store.
I like to attribute my passion for boardgaming to this defining memory and I enjoy sharing my love for boardgaming with my own kids. Boardgames are not only a great way to bring friends and strangers together: they bring families together. Moreover, they create a fertile environment for teachable moments; an opportunity to exercise your parental responsibility in a fun way. Perhaps most importantly, playing games together, in person and with the ability to look each other in the eye, could be the antidote for the malaise of disconnection we’re prone to in this digital age.
I’m also inspired by my favourite board game geek, Wil Wheaton, who credits boardgames for bringing cohesion to his own modern family. If you can get through the video where he relates his family’s board games origin story without welling up just a little bit, I’ll give you 20c! The poignant and heart-felt moment of vulnerability is well worth the watch.
To quote Wil: “What you play is less important than the fact that you’re playing.” But, just in case you don’t know where to start, here are some of the games I’ve played with my kids, both when they were younger and now that they’re older. There are a couple of things that I’ve learned in picking the games below that may also help you in deciding.
Remember these for good memories!
- Co-operative games are a great start as they relieve some of the pressure of competition and rivalry associated with victory and defeat amongst siblings. Take care not to lead your children too much, allowing them to make their own choices during their turns, even if you can easily see the terrible consequences down the road.
- The less hidden information the better. Things such as cards in hand or secret objectives that need to be remembered later are sometimes hard for smaller children to manage. It helps if you can see what is happening on the other side of the table so that you can give some pointers and help with options.
- Try to do your boardgame shopping together. If you’re going past your friendly local boardgame shop, take the kids with you. Let them wander the shelves, pick up and study the games, and even pick one to take home
- Start simple and be patient. A quick game is a good game. Even though the games you’ll be playing early on won’t be the most challenging or interesting for you, you’ll be kindling a future passion. Diving right in with a complex game like Agricola can easily snuff an emerging passion.
The games we play
From left to right, back to front: Dream Home (ages 8 to 15), Zooloretto (ages 5 to 8), Ticket to Ride (all ages), Dixit (all ages), King of Tokyo (all ages), Mice & Mystics (ages 12 & up), Rampage (ages 8 to 12), Machi Koro (ages 8 to 12), Croak! (ages 5 to 12), Forbidden Island (ages 5 to 12) and Lords of Waterdeep (ages 8 to 15).
Dream Home sets each player up with an empty house that they must furnish and decorate to build the best home. The player who accumulates the most points by the end of the game is the winner.
Competition is mostly indirect and scoring only really matters at the end. There is some minor contention for a common pool of cards during the game.
In Zooloretto, each player controls a zoo and is trying to create wonderful animal exhibits by collecting animals and arranging them into suitable enclosures. Players gain more points for fuller enclosures and bonus points for additional facilities. The player with the most points at the end of the game is the winner.
The game offers some opportunities for player interaction, but no overly direct competition. One specific rule does sometimes cause some drama: players can store an animal in their zoo until they are ready to move it to an enclosure and while it is in storage, another player can buy the animal for their own zoo without the approval of the owner. No blood has been shed in my family over this rule, but teeth have been bared.
Ticket to Ride
This is my middle daughter’s favourite game. Now 13, she still asks to play it often, even if it’s just the two of us. Players complete train routes on a large map (the original game features cities in the United States) by collecting sets of train cards of various colours and using these to buy routes between cities. Players score more points for completing longer routes, as well as secret tickets that they hold. At the end of the game, the player with the most points wins the game.
Players draw their cards and keep them hidden in their hand until they are ready to complete a route. I haven’t found this to be an issue with younger players, but younger players will definitely need some assistance in managing their destination tickets in the game.
Oh, and be careful not to bump the table!
Croak! is a game my youngest daughter picked for herself when she was about 5 years old and it remains a firm favourite 6 years later. Each player starts off with a queen frog and a couple of minions in their corner of a small pond made up of face-down tiles. The queens and their minions explore the pond; eating mosquitoes, bouncing on lily pads and (def)eating their opponents, all while avoiding the mud and the hungry pikes. The last frog queen standing is the winner.
Competition in this game is fairly direct and can be quite fierce. We play on the floor so that no-one can flip a table.
Dixit is my eldest daughter’s favourite game, though she has asked me to please stop buying her any more expansions. She’s 15 now, and would rather be gifted with money.
In Dixit, each player gets a turn to select a card from their hand and provide the other players with a subtle clue about the card. The clue can be a word, a phrase, a poem, a song; almost anything. Each other player then selects a card from their own hand that matches the clue. Each player has to guess which card belonged to the first player. The first player scores points when only some of the other players guess their card, while everyone else whose card gets a guess also gets a point.
The art on the cards is varied and exquisite and, along with the many expansions, the game provides for great replayability.
The rules are relatively simple, but the scoring can be tricky and the subtlety of the game is sometimes lost on younger players.
King of Tokyo
King of Tokyo is a push-your-luck dice game where players each assume the role of a knock-off infamous monster intent on destroying Tokyo and each other. Monsters gain energy that can be spent on power-ups and routinely invade Tokyo as the city’s current king-of-the-hill where they get attacked by the other players. Players gain stars for staying in the city, amongst other things, and the first one to get to 20 stars is the winner, though a points victory is extremely rare. The game is usually won by the last monster standing.
King of Tokyo is quite pointedly competitive. The whole idea is to knock other players out of the game and no-one wants to be the first to go.
Machi Koro sees a lot of table time in our house and is currently our most frequently played game. “Machi” means “town” in Japanese, and “Koro” is an onomatopoeia for the sound of a rolling dice. In this game, players each start with a humble Wheat Field and a Bakery and a small amount of coins. From there they have to make money to buy properties and expand their towns to bustling cities of enterprise. Each property has a number on it and when players roll that number on one or two dice, the building makes some money. The first person to have constructed all his/her landmarks is the winner.
For the most part the game is a sandbox race to victory, but the restaurant buildings and some of the Major Establishments allow players to raid each other’s carefully hoarded collections of coins.
Terror in Meeple City (aka Rampage)
Yes, Rampage, like the new movie starring The Rock, is based on the video-game from the 80s, which is probably why it’s now called Terror in Meeple City. Players play as one of 4 monsters on a mission to tear down the city and eat its people. Each player has a specific mission, such as eat the most green dudes, a special ability, and a hidden one-time superpower.
To tear down the city and get at its soft juicy centres, players move their monsters by flicking the “feet”, a small wooden disk, around the board and then dropping the monster onto any building the feet touch. The meeples fly out of the destroyed buildings and the monster gobbles them up, hiding them behind a screen that represents his tummy until it’s time to score the game at the end. Players can also try to physically blow the buildings down and also have their monsters throw cars at other monsters to knock out their teeth. The best monster with the most points wins the game.
I’ve found my kids both enjoy building and destroying the city and the game is one of the few tactile games available. Being allowed to actually throw boardgame pieces around is a very novel experience and also not for the OCD gamer.
Direct competition is light in this game and results in little drama. The hidden superpower and the monster’s personal objective both disadvantage younger players a little, but this is one of the games where no-one really seems to care about the score at the end.
In Forbidden Island, your team of (fool)hardy adventurers are trying to liberate an island of its treasures before it sinks into the sea forever. Every player has a unique role with special skills that they use to navigate and shore up the island as it ever more rapidly sinks into the sea. Players collect their own sets of cards that they can turn in to claim a treasure. This cooperative game offers a wild rollercoaster experience of ups and downs and remains a lot of fun to play.