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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Searching for Kid-friendly Board Games

by Ken Newquist / November 26, 2013
Forbidden Island
Cover art for Forbidden Island.

Winter is coming. In my house, that means long weekends trapped inside with increasingly crazy, argumentative kids enraged by too many hours fighting over the rules to Uno, Life, and Monopoly.

It's the sort of thing that inspired Cracked's "Six Board Games That Ruined It For Everyone" post, and we see it in spades thanks to my son's impromptu board game Sundays. Much like my own Game Days, seven-year-old NeutronLad's friends (ages 4-7) descend on the house and immediately begin breaking out the board games.

Their go-to games are Life and Monopoloy, which lead to the inevitably arguments over rules, failing to follow the rules, and whether or not the spinner landed "on the line".

Part of this is just kids being kids -- they'll argue about anything, and NeutronLad loves to be right. Part of it is also the games, and I'd love to have more 3-5 player games that the kids can turn to.

Cracked's column hits on the classic board games that have caused the most grade school brawls over the years. Life and Monopololy make the list, as well as Risk, Battleship, Snakes & Ladders (aka Chutes & Ladders). It pitches alternatives for each of these games (Life = Ticket to Ride, Monopoly = Power Grid, Risk = Settlers of Catan).

They're good suggestions for the 10+ crowd, but I don't know that they work for younger kids.Settlers chief drawback is all the pieces; I can easily see the hex-based "board" breaking into pieces during a game. There's also the complexity of placing villages and gathering resources -- it's something that's doable with an adult present, but I think it'd be problematic if the kids are left to their own devices. The same goes for Carcassone, which is another family favorite but not something I'd necessarily give seven year olds to play.

Ticket to Ride is a better option, though it too suffers from the potential of a game-ending board knock. It involves some math, which might trip up younger kids, but I think NeutronLad could handle it (5 year olds, not so much).

The thing about the games that everyone has come to hate as mind-blowingly boring (Trouble, Sorry!, Life) is that they're also simple. They're the sort of game parents can fire and forget: set the kids up with it and they're good to go for an hour or two. What I'd like to find is a game that's a little more robust than the old stand-bys, but doesn't require constant parental intervention.

Steve Jackson's Dino Hunt Dice looks like a good candidate. If I understand the reviews, it's a kid-friendly version of Zombie Dice in which players try and take down dinosaurs without being squashed by them. Zombie Dice is a fast, fun game and I can see the dino variant easily consuming 30-60 minutes of the kids time. Naturally, the zombie game itself (which now has an expansion is also a potentially good game, but most parents haven't introduced their 7 year olds to zombies yet (and even if you have, it's likely that your neighbors haven't).

While I have concerns about the tile hexes and the many fiddly bits of Catan, Survive: Escape from Atlantis! was one of my favorite games as a kid. The game features a tile-based island map and a number of villagers tokens. The island is sinking, so each turn a player removes a hex from the island. The goal is to get all of your villagers off the island and to safety before it explodes in all it's volcanic glory. The challenge is compounded by sharks, whales, and sea monsters that lurk off shore and try and eat the survivors. These creatures are controlled by the players, and yes, I can see tears when someone's villager gets eaten by their friend's shark but that's a risk I'm willing to take.

One thing I'd love to have for the kids is a cooperative board game. My group's had weeks of fun playing Arkham Horror and it'd be nice to have a game that the kids play with one another, rather than against. Forbidden Island, another tile-based board game, is also about escaping from a sinking island but this time you work together to do it.

Risk gets a lot of crap from people who hate it. There's certainly a "Risk Math" that you have accept to like the game -- it's entirely possible that -- despite overwhelming odds -- your army of 30 units invading Alaska from Asia will defeated by a lone battalion. There's also the breakout phenomenon in the original game, in which people would suddenly trade in cards, get dozen units, and then sweep across Europe like Napolean.

That said, Risk 2210 is one of my gaming group's favorite games because it added some much needed resource management in the form of commanders, special cards, and energy production (used to buy said commands and cards). Risk Legacy looks like it could be a blast, both for the kids and for myself. The idea is that game has memory -- you play a campaign that carries from one session to the next. It evolves over time, with players encouraged (nay, ordered) to tear up rules. I'm not sure how that would play with the kids, but I'm intrigued.

What do you think? What games do you play with your kids?

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My kid is 5-1/2. Well, I've got two more, but they are under 3, so not a player yet, pardon the pun. For the older boy, we've been playing Zombie Dice for a year plus now. I've got it and Dino Dice on my iOS devices, and he plays both well all the time. Last May, in fact, we went on a road trip just the two of us and we had a lot of fun times playing Zombie Dice together... Including a time at Starbucks, where I learned to be careful pulling the lid off my drink, since I ended up dumping the dice in my coffee instead of the shaker cup.

I bought him Catan Junior about a year ago or so. It's a very well pared down version of Catan, much simplified, and he mastered the rules quickly. I have a copy of Star Wars Epic Duels which he really loves too. I taught him Loot last weekend; the jury is still out there, as I think he got the rules, but isn't quite sure if he likes it (true of many first time games). He has played Ticket to Ride and liked it, but there was a lot of playing with showing our hands. Lastly, we played Ghostchaser, which is fun, and has one opponent but up to four players cooperating.

Hope that helps.

I'm just barely beginning to edge into this topic with my own kid, who's turning 3 this weekend, so I'd be really interested in a follow-up at some point sharing what you figure out with this stuff.

In the coop (or, given the age, "coop") realm, you might try Max the Cat -

That's also an age where you could introduce them to more playing card games, especially if slightly simplified. Maybe Hearts with a simple mod where the queen of spades is irrelevant: the mechanics are actually straight forward, the scoring becomes simple if it's just hearts to consider, and it scales well to varying numbers of players.

Consider Uno as well, or the simpler crazy-8's.

Thanks for the suggestions. I hate to say it, but I've never played Hearts. I had friends who played it a lot in college, but I never got into it.

Uno and Phase 10 are good choices, and popular in our family, though NeutronLad hasn't been playing either of them much with his friend. He just went hogwild for Ticket to Ride though, so maybe they can give that a try.

I'll read up on Max the Cat (if it was a game in which you played kittens, that would be made of win; NeutronLad LOVES kittens...)

Another game I'd like to try is Smash Up ( which I came across in one of the geek christmas list posts (alas, I can't remember which one). It's a "shuffling" card game in which you play two factions (e.g. dinosaurs and pirates) against two other factions (e..g aliens and zombies). It looks just their speed and could be good playdate fodder.

I definitely want to take a closer look at Catan Junior. It seems like a no brainer, but I'm a little concerned that it might be too easy for a 7.5 year old.

I'm also thinking about digging out my Magic: The Gathering Cards; NeutronLad keeps asking me to teach it to him when I'm playing Duel of the Planewalkers on my PS3. It's a complicated card game, but I think I could put together some straightforward creature decks.

I think a 7.5-year old would find CJ too simple too. But I bet he'd handle Catan fine. And I would suggest Loot for sure then. No fiddly bits, just a simple card game.