It’s often said that it's easier to find gamers and turn them into friends than it is to turn friends into gamers. With that aphorism in mind, I’m sure plenty of us wish the converse was true, particularly as we’ve been stuck surrounded by the same faces through the last year of lockdown. This is where family games can help.
I have been lucky enough to get to spend lots of extra time with my wonderful wife and two lovely girls (6 and 9) over the last year. Up till the start of 2020, I exclusively played ‘heavy weight‘ games with friends and my kids tended to stick to computer games like Minecraft. As lockdown progressed, time dilated and the walls began to close in; I knew I had to do something. But how could I get them to play something that wouldn’t drive me up the wall with its simplicity whilst also not boring them with its rules? Here are some family games to keep everyone engaged.
Instead Of: Early Learning Games
Try: Anything by HABA
The one type of game that we had were the ghastly Early Learning Stuff which purports to teach valuable skills. Frankly, I’m unsure how most of these games teach anything, except maybe the lesson, ‘family games are dull’.
Almost without exception all of the kids' games for ages 3+ we played were simply blind luck set collection games. These went down well with my youngest daughter but bored everyone else senseless. Personally, I like to see games teaching competition. Winning or losing in good spirit as well as, hopefully, teaching some mechanics for more advanced games.
Luckily, we finally found HABA games. Hardly the best-kept secret out there with the massive success of Rhino Hero, but we only recently realised the number of excellent games they offer. Always keenly priced and always packing in plenty of fun with a cool mechanic these games have got your back.
For my personal pick, I would suggest the lovely Dragon’s Breath. This is a game with fantastic table presence and art that appealed massively to both my kids. Actually, who am I kidding, loved the sparkly gems as well!
Dragon’s Breath is a fantastic game that teaches your kids about winning and losing, counting and prediction. The premise is simple, you have a stack of sparkly gems contained in icy plastic rings. Each player takes turns picking which colour of gem they want. Then they take off one of the rings, causing a gem cascade. You then just grab the gems of your colour. Play moves to the left with the next player getting first pick of colour and taking off the ring. This brilliantly simple premise works well because, whilst everyone will instantly understand what’s going on, the adults will struggle to beat the kids. Play as well as you like it’s devilishly hard to predict what gems will go where, rather like those 2p pusher machines in the arcade.
Great fun, everyone loves seeing this hit the table.
Words And Letters
Instead Of: Any of the expensive STEM learning games out there
At the start of lockdown, I panicked that my kids weren’t being given enough varied work from school. Being lucky enough to afford to buy some games, I hit up the shops for some logic and learning family games.
Wow, don’t do that, the kids were not impressed and those games now hide, covered in dust, in a drawer.
I did buy Bananagrams for a birthday present for someone though, and the kids were so taken with it we bought ourselves one.
Bananagrams is a great little purchase. It's essentially well-made Scrabble tiles in a banana-shaped bag (I have no idea why but it’s great). You spread these tiles out over your table, grab a set each and then race each other to arrange your set of tiles into a crossword-style grid in front of you. This works so very well because it’s easy to generate simple handicaps for the parents (words of a specific topic etc) and it plays fast and fun with setup in seconds.
On that note, don’t underestimate the fun of a simple Scrabble set. Or, in my instance the fun of a gorgeous wooden deluxe Scrabble set. Scrabble is an undeniable classic that can be played as a cutthroat game of area control as you fight over the triple letter scores and use words no one has ever heard of. Or just a comfortable way to pass the time as you wrack your brains for a suitable word.
Instead Of: Jenga
Try: Ice Cool
Ok, ok, I’m, not actually about to bash the venerable Jenga. There's nothing wrong with it and everyone is usually happy to play it. But, hear me out… does everyone else hate putting it away or resetting it? I swear we spend longer setting it up than playing it.
What I will recommend is the fantastic Ice Cool game. This was a winner as soon as we opened the box. Nested inside like a matryoshka doll is yet more boxes that clip together to make a sizeable game board from the box itself.
The gameplay in Ice Cool is as breezy and refreshing as the theme would suggest. Each player is a Penguin, bunking off from class to eat fish. Each round, one player will take a turn being the hall monitor chasing down their naughty fish-obsessed friends.
What follows is a madcap flicking game as you send your little penguin shooting around. You're either trying to pass through a door to collect a fish or crashing into another penguin to catch them before they do.
Ice Cool is dead-easy to learn but requires plenty of practice to achieve the best shots. And it's a perfect family game since it works for all ages! Honourable mention here, the ‘Pyramid of Pengqueen’ is a very different game that has been themed with the same naughty penguins. This family game also went down very well.
The Fun Random One
Instead Of: Mouse Trap
Try: Camel Up
We recently picked up a cheap copy of Mouse Trap second hand as something to while away an afternoon and be a game that the little one could also enjoy. Well, I’d never played Mouse Trap as a child but the image of all those cool moving parts really appealed.
Sadly, the game… not so much. What followed was about 20 minutes of mild engagement as we moved randomly across the board and built the eponymous rodent catcher. At the end of this, we were treated to ten minutes of repeatedly rolling the dice waiting for the stars to align and the damn thing to actually trap a mouse. That didn’t stay fun for long and it’s now off to the charity shop. So how about a nice game of Camel Up (second edition) instead?
This has all of the table presence and excitement of Mouse Trap. It’s got a big plastic pyramid as a dice roller, a pop-up Palm tree and fantastic artwork. More importantly, it also has a game! In Camel Up, each player is betting on a camel race choosing one action each turn. You can: bet on a camel to win this leg, bet on a camel to win the whole race, move a camel randomly and gain a coin, or place down a spectator token that earns cash whilst either speeding up or slowing down camels that land on it.
The game then is quite simple, just try to work out who you think will win and bet accordingly. The earlier you bid the more you stand to win but the harder to predict. And, once again, unlike an old fashioned board game, as soon as one of the camel’s crosses the finish line the game ends. No waiting around here. Camel Up is quick, plays well varying player counts and is fun for all ages.
The Afternoon Game
Instead Of: Monopoly
My wife suggested the old ‘classic’ of Monopoly. Non-gamers often just want to do an activity that they understand and Monopoly is very much an understood activity. What we’d forgotten was the crushing boredom of the game that refuses to finish. Don’t be like us, keep clear of this particular ‘classic’.
So, what we did was try the modern classic of Ticket to Ride and its Europe edition. Ticket to Ride has had many different versions, including some great quick games like London, but Europe was our choice for two reasons. Firstly, it falls into that nice Saturday afternoon hour-long game bracket and, secondly, it lets our little ones learn a bit of local geography. Definitely a little bit beyond our little one but our 9-year-old took to this instantly.
Ticket to Ride, for those who haven’t had a chance to play it, is a nice simple game. On each turn, you either collect a couple of cards or use matching sets of cards you’ve already picked up to place trains on the board. In doing this you score points and work towards hidden objectives to work your way towards a particular route.
TTR: Europe has all the hallmarks of a great family game, it has very light competition and no player elimination so everyone stays engaged until the end. Also, unlike something like Monopoly it doesn’t outstay its welcome, as once one person uses most of their trains, the game ends.
Overall, a great game, you can choose to be as competitive as you want, there’s a nice bit of planning to keep you interested and always a decision to be made on each turn. A deserved status as a classic in terms of family games.