Whether you’re a seasoned boardgamer that now has kids or came to discover the hobby post children (like me) you’ll know that finding time to crack out a game can be tough. And if your usual gamer friends also have kids, finding a night where everyone has childcare can be almost impossible.
To ensure I get my regular board game fix, I’ve introduced my son (aged 5) to the world of boardgames. This has turned out to be a magical way of bonding with him, making him feel a part of his parent’s world, and stopped me going insane from constant pretend play with paw patrol. And luckily he loves it!
So I wanted to share the games that we regularly play, and reasons why they work. As a plus, we’ve noticed that introducing board games is also helping develop some key social, emotional and academic areas from turn taking and losing to maths and reading. While these were not the reason for playing board games with our little, it is an added bonus.
So here are my family’s top 5 games to play together.
Number 1: The Quacks of Quedlinburg
In the top spot is the quirky push-your-luck game The Quacks of Quedlinburg. This is on the longer side of games in this list, with our games regularly lasting between 45-60 minutes.
This game involves pulling ingredients out of a bag and placing them in your pot in order to maximise your score at the end of the round.
The ingredients each work differently and offer a variety of benefits that can help you score more points. But beware, pull too many cherry bombs and your potion explodes! There’s some reading involved, but it’s not necessary for all players to be able to read, as the rules for how each ingredient works also have handy visual diagrams. Keeping track of scores is easy with the score tracker, and reading numbers from the potion board makes it easy for little kids to move their own tracker (but it’s easy enough for an adult to help if needed).
While exploding your potion can be upsetting for small kids (especially those that don’t like losing) there is usually something to gain at the end of the round (like buying more ingredients, bonuses from played chips, or rubies gained).
Number 2: CoraQuest
This is very much a game made for children, but it’s fun for adults to play too. We got this game after our son kept seeing our Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion set up and wanting to join in. CoraQuest is a dungeon crawler for 1-4 players and the cooperative aspect makes it particularly enjoyable for kids who struggle with losing, as we all win or lose together. Each game usually lasts about an hour, but we’ve often played multiple in a row as my son adores it. Setup can take 10 minutes or so, but this can be aided by how you organise the pieces.
The themes and language are perfectly tailored to even small children, with nothing particularly scary. The baddies are ‘defeated’ rather than killed, quests are lighthearted (like buying a teapot or rescuing a cat).
There’s no requirement for kids to be reading and there’s minimal maths too, making it accessible to all levels. There are also audio recordings of the scenarios you can download and use if you don’t fancy putting on a wizard or goblin voice.
Another amazing benefit is that the game encourages you to create your own quests, and provides a guide for doing so, including making your own heroes, items and baddies. This is very handy if you burn through the quest book quickly (like us) and is a fantastic way to get
your kids imagination firing. There are bonus quests available for free on the website and there is an expansion on the way too!
Number 3: Carcassonne
This was one of the first games we bought and has never gotten boring for any of us. Setup is super quick too, meaning it regularly makes it to the table. The game is simple enough to play. Each turn you pick a tile from a face down pile and place it on the game area to fit with another tile. You score points for cities, roads and monasteries you build and the player with the most points at the end of the game (after all tiles are placed) wins.
There is a handy score tracker board and adding up scores can give good numerical practice for eager kids, or an adult can be in charge for less confident children.
One big benefit of this game is it can be played lightheartedly or ruthlessly, even at the same time. My husband and I often block each other’s builds or attempt to take over each other’s cities, but (at least in the beginning) we would be kinder to our son. However, after watching the more ruthless game play out between his parents, my son is often the first to attempt to take over someone else’s city or block someone in.
There are lots of expansions for this game, and our version came with two mini one’s included (rivers and abbots) but we still mostly play the original.
An added bonus is that we’ll often get 30-60 minutes of independent play from our son after we’ve played a game by leaving the tiles and pieces out. He’ll happily rearrange the tiles and play with the meeples by himself for ages. An unexpected but welcome bonus.
Number 4: Forbidden Island
You’re adventure’s on a sinking island. Can you work together to get the treasure and escape before the island disappears into the watery depths?
This is a beautiful cooperative game for 2-4 players that is incredibly popular with not only my son, but his friends too. The rules are fairly simple, setup is pretty quick and games unusually last about 30 minutes. If you’ve played pandemic then you’ll already be familiar with some of the mechanics, with each ‘player’ having special abilities, cards that cause the water to rise and a tracker to increase the rate of sinking.
No maths is required and again an adult can read the little that is needed if players are not yet able.
Like CoraQuest, the cooperative aspect of this game makes it great for kids who struggle with losing, and also makes it easier to guide kids on how to make decisions, without ruining the game. Just remember to not take over completely and let kids make their own choices (and mistakes!).
This is another game that we often leave the pieces out after playing and my son will happily play on his own for a while, lost in his imagination.
Number 5: Patchwork
This two player game involves creating a quilt from ‘patches’ of polyomino tiles that you buy with buttons. You earn buttons from patches you previously placed, with more difficult tiles often giving you a greater button reward. Patches cost time, as well as buttons, which is tracked on the time tracker board.
The game ends when both players are out of time, and the winner is the one with the most buttons. To encourage you to fill up your quilt as much as possible, you’ll lose 2 buttons at the end of the game for every unfilled space. But if you’re the first player to completely fill a 7x7 square you’ll get bonus buttons to help you win.
Placed a patch leaving a single space? Don’t panic! You’ll be able to collect single leather patches to fill any holes, but only if you get to them first on the time tracker board.
It sounds more complicated than it is, and there is absolutely no reading required. There is some simple maths of counting how many buttons you’ve earned and need to spend, but as most patches are less than 10, it’s fairly easy and good number practice for kids.
This game definitely helps with spatial awareness too, and using logic to think where best to place a patch as well as planning ahead for what patches they might be able to get after, and how they might fit together well.
My Tips For Playing Games With Small Children
That’s our top 5, but we definitely play many more as a family. All of these games are fully enjoyed by all of us, and after over a year of playing games pretty much every day with my now 5 year old and sometimes his friends too, we’ve gained some useful tips for how to pick and play games with small people.
Tip 1: Ignore the suggested age
Many of the games we play are recommended for ages 10+, and I don’t think it’ll be long before we introduce some ages 14+ games too. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a game will be too hard, as every kid (like every person) is different.
Tip 2: Make sure the theme and artwork are age appropriate
Even games that seem aimed at kids might not be suitable. We recently borrowed Stuffed Fables (recommended age 7+) from a friend, as we’ve recently completed CoraQuest and want a new adventure game to play together. On paper the theme seemed perfect - cuddly stuffies helping keep a little kid safe in their big bed.
However our friends did warn us that the theme and artwork can be a bit creepy and after showing some of the pieces and cards to our kid he immediately said it was too scary and didn’t want to play.
Tip 3: Let them get interested first
It can be exciting to think our kids will be a captive (literally) board gaming player, but if we go in all over enthusiastic we might just turn off their interest completely. Instead, leave a game out that you’ve played with someone else that you think they might like and let them ask about it before you offer to play. Keep some games that are easily accessed and seen
on a regular basis to spark their curiosity. Allow them to see and touch the pieces without committing to play.
Tip 4: Remember they are little and give them space
While my kid has never ‘flipped the board’ he’s stormed off or had a meltdown numerous times. Losing feels bad to most people, but it’s particularly hard for small children. We’ve learned the best way to handle it is to let them feel it, allow them to be sad and upset. If it’s mid game, take a break and let them calm down. Leave the game out and they might want to pick it up again.
Tip 5: Let them win occasionally
It’s important for children to learn they aren’t going to win all the time, but it’s important that they also experience the joys of winning. Allow your kids to win every now and again, but do it tactfully. Kids are smarter and more observant than we give them credit for and they can often see that we are letting them win, which ruins the experience for everyone.
Tip 6: Shop your collection
Don’t feel you need to go out and buy a whole new set of games to play with your kids, as you probably have a few that you already own they could manage. That way you’ll already know the rules, making explaining them so much easier. And you won’t get disappointed that you’ve spent lots of money on games no one really enjoys!
Tip 6: Keep it short
Start off with shorter games (15-30 minutes) as small kids often have shorter attention spans. You can always play multiple rounds or crack out a couple of different games if everyone is super interested and engaged. On the same note as to keep it short is to pick games with quick set up times too!
Tip 7: Don’t get precious
Small people are careless. There's a good chance that your game pieces might get damaged. Yelling at your kids as they absently minded smear jam or chocolate over a board or cards in your most prized game is a certain way to ensure you all never play together again. Accept that things will get a bit used and keep your most prized games stored away, out of sight.
Final Thoughts On Boardgaming With Small Children
We hope that you get to experience the fun of family gaming time with your kids, but remember it’s ok if they don’t get involved. It’s about sparking joy and opening up a new and exciting world, not creating a whole set of bad memories or forcing fun.