Searching for Kid-friendly Board Games

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 Napoleon.

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.

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