Adele and I were able to visit with some close friends and their kids for a couple weeks this summer. Normally we would spend 8 hours a day blowing each other up in various video games, but this time ’round we didn’t have all the computers available, so we played board games instead—lots of them, it turned out. Over 13 days we played 16 different games 68 times. I thought I’d take some time to talk briefly about each game. Maybe you’ll want to add a couple to your collection!
Of the games discussed in this post, these are the games I think every family should own:
- Dutch Blitz (playable with standard playing cards)
- Escape: The Curse of the Temple
- Ticket to Ride: Europe (or at least one of the Ticket to Ride series of games)
Runners up include
I vacillated between sorting this alphabetically or by number of plays. I’m going to go with number of plays.
This is an old card game that’s still readily available. I’ve played it with kids as young as 8. It consists of 81 cards, each with a unique combination of four different attributes: number (1, 2, or 3 shapes), colour (red, purple, or green), shape (oval, diamond, or “squiggle”), and fill (empty, solid, or hatched). A “set” is collection of three cards in which each attribute is either all the same or all different. For example, the following cards constitute a set: 1 red solid oval, 1 red empty squiggle, and 1 red hatched diamond.
The base game is a group of people around a layout of 12 cards face up on the table. As soon as you see a set, shout “SET!” and claim the cards. Replacement cards are laid out and you keep going. The person who finds the most sets wins. In my experience, kids from about 12 and up can compete evenly with adults. (My friend’s 13 year old beats me pretty much half the time.)
For younger kids or kids with less experience, a better variant is a two-player version called Get Set. It’s a combination of SET and Go Fish. The speed element is removed, so the kids have more time to think things through.
Sentinels of the Multiverse
I love this game! And the boys loved it even more. It’s a cooperative superhero game. The players are a team of superheroes fighting a supervillain in some environment. The game designer has a whole comic universe in his head from which he draws these characters. They all have fun back stories and each is quite unique. In the base game you have 10 heroes, 4 villains, and 4 environments. Each is represented by a deck of cards. The variability these combinations provide is awesome. I’ve ordered all the expansions to make things even more epic. If you want a game that actually feels like playing a superhero, this is the one for you.
Heroes include characters like Tachyon who is super fast. She’s not particularly strong, but she can hit multiple targets many times. Or you can play Ra, who is a master of fire. There’s also a more Batman-like character called The Wraith, who relies on equipment more than inherent super powers.
Villains include Baron Blade who is trying to pull the moon into the Earth or Omnitron the sentient robot factory intent on destroying humanity.
And these heroes and villains duke it out in environments like the stereotypical Megalopolis with traffic jams, police interference, and crashing monorails. Or maybe you’ll want to head to the Wagner Mars Base where you have to worry about self-destruct sequences and oxygen leaks.
Wiz-War (8th Edition)
This is an utterly chaotic game of wizard-on-wizard violence. 2–4 wizards try to capture each other’s treasure or outright kill them. The first person to 2 victory points wins. The game deck consists of different schools of magic, represented by mini-decks. Every game you choose a different 3 and play on.
Forget strategy; this is a game of pure tactics. If you keep drawing lame cards, you better be able to run fast. This is what gamers call a “beer & pretzels game,” meaning it is light and fun but without real substance. It’s tons of fun, and I’m glad I have it, but I have to admit to getting frustrated sometimes.
You can still buy this version of the game in stores, but it’s completely playable with a standard deck of cards; all you need is a deck with unique backs for each player/team. This is a game of competitive solitaire where players race to deplete a starting pile of cards by playing cards to a shared central area. First person to deplete their pile ends the round and then points are given based on the number of cards played to the central area. It’s fast and furious and the kids just love it. Lots of “Curse you!”s and grunts of frustration.
This is a game every family should have in their collection. Every person I’ve played it with has enjoyed it and wanted a copy. It’s a cooperative card game where you are working together to complete a central layout. The rub is that you can’t see your own cards, but you can see everybody else’s. Together you give each other information about your hands as you work towards the goal. Always fun and works with just about everybody. Go out and pick it up today.
This is an older cooperative game of saving the world from annihilation at the hands of 4 diseases. A newer edition is available, but I still have the original. In many ways this is the seminal cooperative game. It wasn’t the first, but it was the breakout example. If you like cooperative games and can avoid the “alpha gamer” scenario with one person who tells everybody else what to do, this is a ton of fun for the whole family.
Pixel Tactics was first released as part of Level 99’s Minigame Library. It was so successful that they released it as a separate game. There are now 3 pixel tactics games (all the same game, just new decks). It’s a 2-person game where each of you build a 9-man unit, trying to defeat the opposing leader. The cool mechanic is that each card in your deck has different powers depending on where in the unit layout it appears. Each card is thematic, though, so all the powers relate to each other. The winner is the first person to destroy the opposing leader. The choice of leaders makes each game completely different. This is a fast-playing game that’s lots of fun.
Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends
This is really an abstract strategy game of placing pieces on a board to create patterns, but I really love the theme this game adds. You are wizards competing against each other, summoning creatures (the different pieces) onto the board. Each creature gives you a different one-shot ability when summoned. There are also legendary summons that are much more complex to build but that are also more powerful. The game works best with two players, but there are versions for 3-player deathmatch or 4-man team games. There are two fundamental modes of play: deathmatch and the “high form.” Deathmatch is a pure summon fest. You get points for destroying your opponent’s pieces. Reach so many points and you win. The high form is more subtle. There is a deck of objective cards, three of which are available at any given time. If at the end of your turn you meet the criteria of one of the cards, you can claim it and the VP associated with it and a new card is flipped over. The first person to a fixed number of VP wins.
It’s a mild brain burner—low on strategy but high on tactics. Lots of room to totally frustrate your opponent. The base game comes with two identical decks in two colours and then two additional unique decks. I’m not sure if expansions are forthcoming, but they would interest me if they showed up. It’s a lot of fun.
Ticket to Ride: Europe
The Ticket to Ride (TtR) series has been around for about 10 years—a long time in boardgaming terms. It was an instant hit and continues to be hugely popular. A 10th anniversary edition of the original game was just released. TtR: Europe was the second installment and is the only one I own. As a family gateway game, it’s my favourite of the series. The map is more forgiving and the added mechanic of the train stations keeps frustration to a minimum. In my opinion, if you’re only going to have one TtR game, Europe is the one you should get. If you really enjoy them, there are lots of map packs and other substantive expansions (Marklin and Africa) also available.
It’s actually a game of set collection. You collect cards of specific colours to claim train routes of corresponding colours to connect cities. Everybody has destination tickets to try to fulfill to gain victory points (connecting Paris to Moskova, for example). The person with the most points wins. Part of the fun is figuring out where your opponents are trying to go and heading them off, but you don’t have to play that aggressive if playing with kids. It’s an excellent family game and a great way of introducing new gamers to the hobby. One of the TtR games should be in every gamer’s collection.
Wits & Wagers
This is the only trivia game I know of where you don’t need to know the answers. It’s played with as many as 7 teams (as large as you want). Each team starts with a mini whiteboard and pen and 2 chips. There are 7 total questions asked in each game. All of the answers are numeric (e.g., What percentage of US music sales is of country music). All the teams write their answer secretly and reveal them simultaneously. The answers are then sorted and laid on a board, and all the teams can bet on what answer or answers are correct. The correct answer is the one that’s closest without going over. Each slot has a payout ratio and everybody wins or loses chips as appropriate. The team with the most chips at the end of the game wins.
If the betting aspect bothers you, there is a “family” version with different sorts of questions and that does not involve betting per se, just winning points.
The family enjoyed this one so much we played it 3 times in a row. This is a very popular and successful game.
This is a 1997 reskin of an even earlier Avalon Hill title. This edition is still in print, as far as I know. This is another betting game of sorts. Eight monsters are selected out of a possible 12, each with a unique power. These 8 will fight each other over 5 rounds. Only 3 will survive. At each round you can place a bet on a monster. The earlier the bet, the more valuable it is. You can also make an extra-valuable secret bet before the game even starts. Each round, a single monster is knocked out, rendering all those bets useless. Whoever’s bets are worth the most at the end of the game wins.
There’s a lot of reading your opponents in this game and a lot of deliberate “screwing your neighbour.” It can be frustrating and confrontational, so it’s not for everyone, but I enjoy it.
Escape: The Curse of the Temple
This is a real-time cooperative game that has done really well, and for good reason. This is frantic, loud fun. Players simultaneously roll their own set of dice to explore a temple maze and find the exit. Tasks have to be completed in some rooms to make exiting even possible once it is found. You have to work together to accomplish everything you need to do in the fixed 10 minutes allotted. There is wailing and gnashing of teeth and frantic jumping up and down. This is another essential game, in my opinion. Any and every family of all ages will get a boat load of fun out of this. And if somehow it gets too easy for you, there are a number of expansions to up the ante. This game is always a hit. I love it.
This is what they call a “dudes on a map”–style war game. It’s a definite step up from games like Risk, but it’s not some deep Euro either. It’s set in an Egypt-like setting. 2–5 players try to gain victory points by controlling certain spaces on the board and by beating up their neighbours. The “dudes” also include mythical creatures like the giant scorpion to help bolster your troops. You gain prayer points that you use to buy up power tiles that give you unique, permanent abilities. The first person to a fixed number of victory points wins.
We only broke the game out twice and only played to 4 VP (the “introductory” game) with the first 2 (of 4) levels of power tiles. It’s promising, but it didn’t wow half the group. You need to have the right people. I’m not sorry I bought it (yet), but I’m not sure how much play it’s going to get.
This game came out in 2002 and is now sadly out of print. It’s part of the Kosmos 2-player line of games, of which I own a few. Two players act as Odin’s ravens, racing across a varied landscape. A variable map of landscape tiles is laid out and matching landscape cards are in each of the identical player decks. Through a couple of mechanics, these cards are played to move you along the track until someone reaches the end. You score points equal to the final distance between you and your opponent (plus a few bonuses) and the first to a fixed number of points over a few races wins.
This game works very well with kids. It’s easy to grasp but has just enough thinking in the auxiliary deck mechanic that they feel like they can improve. Kids can beat grownups often enough that they feel like they’re doing well and you don’t feel like you have to hold back. Hopefully one day this will come back into print. Until then, if you can find a copy and have a regular 2-player gaming buddy, this might work for you.
King of Tokyo
Plays: 1 (incomplete)
I don’t get to play this game nearly as much as I’d like. I really enjoy it, especially with the Power Up! expansion. You need to have a group of people, though, who are willing to get in to the theme, otherwise it can devolve into competitive Yahtzee. Up to 5 players play huge monsters trying to destroy Tokyo. You roll dice with various symbols to beat up your opponents, heal, earn victory points, or collect energy for purchasing additional powers. The first person to 20 victory points wins.
I know it doesn’t sound all that exciting, but the kids enjoy it, and if everyone at the table is willing to get in to the spirit and do a little trash talk, this can be very engaging.
A new standalone expansion called King of New York has just been released, which brings a few new mechanics to the game play.
And last but not least is Suburbia—a Euro game about building a borough. You go through the game buying tiles of different types (e.g., industrial, residential, etc.) with different effects and gaining population and income. The borough with the highest population at the end wins.
It sounds very simple, but the interaction between the tiles is not always evident. There’s a great deal of forethought and strategic planning needed. In this single 2-player game we played, the 13-year-old trounced me. I was way ahead, but not knowing the sorts of tiles that would come up at the end of the game, combined with my complete neglect of one certain class of tile, led to my annihilation. This game is very popular and highly reviewed. I’m going to need to play it a few more times with more people before I make a final decision on it.