Our Favorite Games (Master List)

This is a fraction of the board games we own. Seriously. Ben and Ava recently "hacked" Candyland into a fun game. More on that soon.
We play a lot of board games. I think I've mentioned this before, but one of the things I love about board games--and Michael actually read this somewhere--is that they're totally pointless, and so when you play a board game with your child, you're saying, "This is time I want to spend with you." It's simple, but really quite lovely, don't you think? 

Plus, the return on your investment is huge. One way we save money for board games is by putting $5/hour in a "game jar" whenever Ben and Birdy are babysitting each other. We don't do this if Michael and I are working (in which case, it's more of an everyone-pitching-in situation). But if Michael and I are going out without the kids, we put money towards a new game--usually one we have our eye on already. I cannot recommend this enough as a way to deal with the babysitting/money issue, and as a way to save up for new games.

For big-investment games, I recommend borrowing them first from a friend or testing them at a game store before you invest. There is really little worse than a $40 game nobody wants to play. Except, maybe, grilled eggplant that isn't cooked enough.

I'm assuming that you already have basic word games, such as ScrabbleYahtzeeBoggle or, better yet, the utterly fabulous Big Boggle (which our kids prefer to play without a timer) or even the utterly fabulouser Super Big Boggle (you can't score any words with fewer than 4 letters), as well as Bananagrams--all of which are crucially excellent games. 

The games below are organized into these categories:
  • Heavy-duty Strategy Games
  • Less Intense Strategy Games
  • Games That Are Mostly About Speed and/or Dexterity
  • Games for Younger Children
  • Party Games
  • Travel Games
  • Puzzles

The suggested ages are somewhat random, of course, since when someone's ready to play any particular game really just depends on their interests and previous experience and comfort level with whatever skills are required.

[And for even more game-recommending excellence, please see the lists of my friend Josh Glenn, co-author of the fabulous Unbored, which is a book we love:


Heavy-duty Strategy Games
These are serious strategy games, often European in origin, that involve very little luck and very little boring down-time. They tend to be deceptively simple to learn and wildly complex to play, but not always; some are so hard to learn that Ben has had to pre-digest the rules for us by sitting with them for hours on end until he's can explain them (I realize that this is a hindrance, but worthwhile). The games are almost always physically lovely, with heavy-duty, beautifully made wooden and cardboard pieces. Also, they're often relatively expensive--but I have never regretted investing in one, since we get so much play out of them. If there's a gamer's store near you--you know, once of those places where a bunch of fragrantly-male adolescents is exclaiming over their Magic cards--see if they offer a game night where you can come and try a game that you're thinking of buying; besides the wise preview factor, it's also a fun (free) night out. Most of the games I mention here are good for kids 7 and up, though Birdy has been playing them a bit longer than that (not that she had a lot of choice in the matter). A word of warning: once you play these games, some of the games you've been loving for years (Monopoly, Clue, Sorry, Uno) will suddenly seem so boring you will wonder what you were thinking.

Agricola


Once, when we were playing, a friend stopped by, and later I said, "Did we actually talk to her?" And Michael said, "I think we yelled, 'Hello.'" It's like that.
Oh, Agricola. Someone here first recommended it to us, and it is my all-time favorite game. It is very difficult to learn, it takes forever to play, and it is the most edgy edge-of-your-seat stressful strategy game ever. Nonetheless, two hours of your life will whiz by in a blur of delightful anxiety while you try to feed your people and expand your house and do a million more things that you DON'T HAVE ENOUGH TURNS TO DO. It is very crazy and fun, and everyone who bothers to learn it loves it.
2 to 5 players
Ages 8 or 9+

(A special shout-out here to Agricola: All Creatures Great and Small, the mini two-player version, which we play a lot, and which I plan to review in full at some point. It's like a mini bag of Fritos. It's not enough, but it's better than no Fritos.)



Another all-time favorite game, and our long-ago introduction to European-style board games. It's almost deceptively lovely: you lay out forest, meadow, and river tiles (there's not actually a board) to create a stone-age landscape full of woolly mammoths and fish ponds and rambling woods. And then it's just this crazy mix of simple (draw a tile, lay a tile) and mind-blowingly strategic As a person who grew up with such maddeningly-competitive-but-numbingly-boring games as Monopoly and Risk, I honestly had no idea that a game could be so engrossing. Brace yourself for a bit of culture shock when you unfold the directions: there's a steep but swift learning curve, and I swear it's not actually that hard to play. I also love it because it's finite: as with all the Carcassonne games, you simply play until you run out of tiles, which takes around 45 minutes.
2-5 players
Ages 7+

If you buy only one Carcassonne, make it Hungers and Gatherers. But if you want another, get Wheel of Fortune. This variation is quick, lovely, and wickedly competive, with an element of luck that adds to both the fun and frustration. But that distraught woman on the box? I have no idea what she's all about, and whether the featureless gingerbread-man-shaped wooden play pieces ("meeples" they're called, I don't know why) are intended in some way to represent her plight. We are not so much about the story as we are about fitting the tiles together and sneaking into each other's high-scoring situations. It is so much fun.
2-5 players
Ages 7+
Okay, this game too: when we play it, I'm a hundred percent positive that it's my favorite game. Partly it's because it's got this super-cool play element whereby you are completely involved even when it's not your turn, and partly it's because it is just another beautiful, beautifully designed strategy game where you're gathering resource tiles to build settlements, cities, and roads. There's lots of trading, which we think is incredibly fun, but which a younger child might find kind of stressful. Also, even though you only need ten points to win, it can take well over an hour. That said, one of the things I love about this game is that Birdy is just as likely to win it as anybody else, even though the whole time we're playing I am secretly thinking that her strategies are completely crazy. Go figure. There are lots of "expansions" you can buy to complicate play and increase the number of players. See below.
3-4 players (more if you get an expansion)
Ages 8+

Seafarers of Catan, the most famous Catan expansion, does something weird to me, and I can’t pretend it’s good. And by weird I mean testosterone. During a recent game, I got so mad at Michael that I had the humiliating experience of the kids saying, “Mama, Mama, he wasn’t trying to screw you. You have to get over it or it’s really not going to be fun for you.” Sigh. Still, I always want to play. And the kids, who are better sports than I am, love it. The Cities and Knights expansion also adds a ton of play value and can be played in conjunction with Seafarers. Again, it is about as easy to learn as Organic Chemistry, and it makes Michael and me want to choke each other to death in competitive homicidal rage, but it is really worth it. Just to add a weird gamer's caveat: for the expansions, you need to have the original Settlers of Catan game as well or you won't be able to play it.

Every time I play this game, I say, "I think this is actually my favorite board game," and the kids say, "You always say that." It's a cross-country train-themed game, and you're trying to complete various routes (from the Destination Tickets you draw) by laying out trains (using the Color Cards you draw). It's both insanely easy to learn, and truly challenging to play; the game's designer describes it this way: "The tension comes from being forced to balance greed – adding more cards to your hand, and fear – losing a critical route to a competitor." Greed and fear! And also, a little bit of screwing other people. But it's so much fun, I swear. And you really don't know who is going to win until it's all over--which I love, especially compared to a game like Monopoly, where usually you're spending more than half the game experiencing your own agonizingly slow defeat. 
2-5 players
Ages 7+


The summer we got this game, we played it every single day; we were obsessed. And we still love it. It's insanely demanding, strategy-wise, and yet it's easy to learn, and the sweet animal-themed tiles has made it lots of fun for Birdy, who had been initially put off by some of the other strategy games we were playing. Like the others, though, this one is beautiful--a mix of sturdy cardboard and wooden pieces--and it feels like it offers layers and layers of play: you learn it and think you get it, but then the more time you spend with it, the more you start to understand other ways to think about it. You're trying to fill your zoo with just the right number of animals (And if you get a mating pair you can have a baby! Yay!), and the play is finite (it's over when the tiles are gone) and there's no clear winner until the very end.
Note: we downloaded the expansions for free from the Rio Grande website.
2-5 players (but best with 3 and up)
Ages 7+


Dominion boasts "massive replay value" and this is more true than I know how to describe. We opened it two days before Christmas, and I'm not sure that a day has passed since during which we haven't played at least once. It takes around a half an hour, and there are many variations, and we all seem to win sometimes. When you read the description, it's all weird second-person dungeons-and-dragons "You are a monarch, a ruler of the peasants, an eater of the mutton, blah blah," and that's not at all what it's like to play. You're trying to amass resources, and it's more like an algorithm of logic and strategy than a narrative. I'm just saying. Gosh, I am really turning into a gamer. Do I smell like a gamer yet? Maybe. We also have and love the money-themed Prosperity expansion and are currently borrowing the complexity-themed Intrigue expansion from a friend who has all her expansions organized in a very special labeled box.
2-4 players
Ages 8+

It is so not okay to use as the theme of your game the Colonial occupation of an island nation, especially given that the indigenous people who weren’t wiped out by violence and disease were enslaved by the same brutal plantations that this game celebrates. So. If you are up for doing a little thematic intervention about the terrible politics of the game, then Puerto Rico is an excellent game, from the standpoint of gaming: complex, strategic, always interesting. My children are willing to play even given that I have to speak constantly about how offensive it is, so you know it’s a good game.
3-5 players
Ages 9+

This resource-gathering game is like a cross between Puerto Rico and Agricola, but not as hard to learn as either of them. We are currently addicted to it. It's one of those not-enough-turns-to-do-everything games: you need more people to get more stuff, but the more people you have, the more food you have to gather to feed them, etc. Fantastic.
2-4 players
Ages 9+


Acquire is a densely strategic game that's a little bit brutally competitive, like Monopoly that's been infused with testosterone. For instance, I sometimes feel like I'm going to punch Michael in the face when we're playing. They call it a "High finance game of speculation and strategy"--but really they mean "Screw or be screwed." You're trying to control the biggest hotel chains on the board, and along the way your children will learn terms like "merger" and "majority shareholder." If capitalism is not your bag, take a pass; but if you crave the catharsis of board-game rage, this is a great one.
3-6 players
Ages 10+  (Ben played younger, but he's totally obsessed with money)

Less Intense Strategy Games

Love Letter is small, inexpensive, attractive, easy to learn, relatively quick, and like a cross between Hearts, Stratego, and a Jane Austen novel. Plus, it's totally streamlined and lovely, and comes in a little velvet draw-string bag, which is so wonderful.
2-4 players
Ages 8+


This is a heavy-strategy card game that I heard about when someone recommended it to me here, and it’s unique, cooperative, and sleekly, bafflingly excellent. (Thank you!) I asked the kids to describe it, and Birdy said, utterly unhelpfully, “It’s the mind-boggling game of reversed!” “Reversed?” “Yes. Reversed.” And then, like a commercial narrator, “In this wild, logical game, you can look at every hand, except your own!” Ben’s decription: “You try to play cards in a particular order, while giving your teammates advice about their cards, without ever looking at your own. The ultimate goal is to create fireworks for a party.” That’ll have to do. (Please note that I am not linking to Amazon here because, inexplicably, this $10 game is $50 on that site.)
2-5 players
Ages 8 and up




We never tire of Chinese Checkers around here, and I think it's partly because we can play with 2, 3, or 4 (or 5 or 6) players. And partly because it's always a pleasure. We’ve been playing with  “super" version rules, which is insanely fun and, if you know the game, really eliminates that boring mid-game congestion that can sap your will to live. Do try to get the version of the game that comes with iridescent marbles. They’re so beautiful I always want to put them in my mouth (Maybe that’s not a selling point?). Our friend Ava, whose family has the same set as us, has named all the colors: Dragon, Gubble Bum, Mustard, Ocean, Fire, and, my favorite, Almond Bath Bubble.
2-6 players
Ages 6+


We discovered Bohnanza when someone here first recommended it. (Thank you!) At first you'll think it's really stupid. It says something on the box like, "The fun bean-trading game!" and you'll wonder if I only like it because of my weird obsession with pinto beans. But the strategy kind of creeps up on you in a great way. Plus, it's super-easy to learn and not that expensive. I don't love the art (I'm kind of picky that way), but it's a fun game, and has been a long-standing go-to birthday present.
2-7 players
Ages 8+

Ben thinks this card looks like a friend of ours. Chris Perry? Is that you?

This is one of my own personal favorites, and it's a game we play often if we've got a bit of time, but don't have the full hour or hour-and-a-half that the Euro board games require. It's a rummy-type of strategy game, and you're trying to get rid of your 14 tiles by laying them out in runs or sets--but you can actually rearrange and pilfer from the tiles that are already out, which makes for a really challenging and entertaining level of play. That said, though, it's one of those great easy-to-play games that is just as likely to be won by the youngest kid as by the mathiest adult.
2-4 players
Ages 7+

Surely you've played Blokus, right? You're trying to fit as many of your pieces out onto the grid as you can--more than anyone else does--before you run out of space. There's, like, one rule, but somehow the game is crazy-spatially-challenging. It seems to involve some really particular part of your brain, because when we play with our friends Peggy and Nina, who are both math professors, only one of them is good at it. But Birdy, who plays with her own "snuggle" strategy ("I'm snuggling all your pieces, Mama!") often wins. The only downside is that you really need four people for it--no more, no fewer--which is slightly limiting, since often 3 of us will want to play, and then we've got to rope the other person in. 
Best with 4 players
Ages 5+
We first played this game at the hostel where we were staying on Cape Cod, and we always call it "Globbet"--I think because Ben used to say "Pliget" instead of "Piglet." It's a beautiful, wooden 2-person game that is divinely simple and pure strategy. And even though it gets described as a "tic-tac-toe" game, it's got some crazy elements (you can "gobble" a player's pieces with your own) and is almost chess-like in its intensity--but much, much quicker to play, obviously. I admit that sometimes Ben gets it out and I say, "Oh, Ben, pick something that won't make me have to think so much," but I tell you that only as a lame confession, since I tend to think that thinking is a good thing. 
2 people
Ages 7+

Games That Are Mostly About Speed and/or Dexterity
Surely you know The Family Game of Visual Perception, right? This is the game that forces your brain to see trios of cards in terms of their likeness or unlikeness, and it is, for grown-ups, an excellent barometer of how much you've had to drink. Very fun, totally engrossing, and a game with great longevity: we've been playing it for 20 years, Michael and I, since the kids were just a twinkle.
1-5 players
Ages 6 and up



The unassuming little game Anomia has been cracking us up completely. It's tiny, which makes it a great travel game, and it's very silly, which makes it a great all-ages game. Plus, your children will maintain the sober evening high ground when you face off over the category "vegetable," and they say "zucchini," while you laugh and laugh beerily after blurting only, lamely and illegitimately, "vegetable." Anomia means, more or less, "without a name"--like amnesia, around what things are called. You'll see when you play that your middle-aged brain functions about as effectively as a cracker barrel, while your children's seem to hum along like microchips. Alas.
3-6 players 
Ages 8+

Duple is fantastic. It's basically like Anomia crossed with a really great word game, like Boggle, and a really terrible neurological disorder, like amnesia. Or, from the company's description: “Players flip letter cards in turn until the symbols on two players' cards match. Matching players face-off by being the first to shout a word which contains the letters on both cards. Sound easy? Think again. Correct answers must be at least 5 letters long and conform to ever-changing categories.” So, for example, when the category was “verb,” and the letters on the table were f and u, Ben yelledfrustrate, while my mind was still turning over a verb that was more obvious but neither long enough nor not an obscenity. “Wow,” Ben said. “That really shot out my word hole!” Indeed. Sadly, my own personal word hole is producing only a demented trickle.
3-6 players
Ages 8+

Is it the vague Amish theme? The fact that it says "A Vonderful Goot Game" so campily on the box? I don't know--but make no mistake, this is one of our family's very most-played-ever games. In fact, we played it so much over the summer (it was the only game we took on our trip) that I got blisters from shuffling, and our cards, which had been new, ended up looking like something excavated from a ruin. That said, we often find ourselves being so very loud when we play this game--swearing and muttering and singing crazy songs--that we have sworn off playing it in public for a while. It's got a very simple Solitaire-style of play (stacking consecutive cards) and is all about speed and concentration rather than, say, strategy. It's a great game to play a few rounds of if you've got just 15 or 20 minutes to kill, and it's good with 2, 3, or 4 people. We've given it as a present at least a dozen times. I'm never quite sure what makes it so much fun, but it is, and we continue to play it regularly.
2-4 players
Ages 6+
(Note: Reader Liz asked me to point out that this is the same as the card game Pounce, for which you need only a deck of regular playing cards for each player. Google it for the rules, and spare yourself the buying of a new game! Though you will miss the Amishness. . . )

Slamwich is like a fancified version of that old you-snooze-you-lose card game Slap Jack. But the sandwich theme is lots of fun, and the game cards doubled for Ben and Birdy as the makings of a sandwich shop, that they ran almost continuously from their pretend kitchen. That was actually kind of a long time ago, which makes me feel a little melancholy.
2-6 players
Ages 4+

Speaking of classics: right? Oh, Jenga. Michael and I used to babysit kids in Santa Cruz, for whom "Jenga!" was their all-purpose exclamatory swear. And boy did we play a lot of Jenga with them. It's a totally physical game--you need some dexterity, a little bit of a steady hand and common sense--but it's not a heavy strategy one or anything. And it's fun for everyone when all the pieces fall down (Ben and I played just last week at a family gathering, and it was as much fun as ever.) Plus, the pieces double as great, all-purpose building blocks, and get tons of use.
2 or more players
Ages 4+


Booby-Trap
Try to extract pieces without the spring moving, and if you pick a truly bad one, then they all fly up, and it's very exciting. Again, not for the extremely faint of heart (it was too much for Ben until he was about 5 or so), given the suspense factor and the possibility of losing somewhat dramatically. There seems to be a new-fangeld version that gets poor reviews. For the original, look on ebay! 12 bucks will get you the exact version we have, which is both delightful and esthetically pleasing. But if your kids are the sort to argue over potential turn-ending nanovibrations during pick-up-sticks, this is not the game for them.

Speaking of the suspense factor: we spent years playing Operation with the batteries removed, as it was simply too nerve-wracking for the kids to anticipate the awful buzz of their own clumsiness. But later, when they were maybe 8 and 5--or 7 and 4--they played a ton, and enjoyed it. We have the Homer Simpson edition (I'm not sure why, and it appears to be $90 now!), and the buzz is accompanied by "Doh!" along with other classic Homeric exclamations, which is a good or bad thing, depending. If dexterity completely eludes your child still, maybe hold off on this one (or remove the batteries).

Games for Younger Children
I spared you Mousetrap, despite my children's hearty nostalgia for it, because it is simply to significant a pain in the ass to deal with. It just is. Also, I am not linking to Uno. As the kid in a trail hut once said to 5-year-old Ben--after Ben announced pleasantly, "You have Uno? So do we!"--"EVERYBODY has Uno." 



Harvest Time
If the idea of a "cooperative board game," makes you want to weep with boredom, well. . . weep away. But we got this game when Ben was very small and very panicky over the idea of "winning games." We played it hundreds of times then, and hundreds more times when Birdy was the same age, with the same panic (and we still play it when our littlest friends are over). It's a sweet little game where you work together to get the harvest in before winter comes--but I'm warning you: you have to put out a lot--a lot of drama and enthusiasm and suspensified horror--or else it is deadly dull. When it's over, you can offer each other the products of your harvest ("Who wants a jar of my famous carrot pickles?") even though you won't find this detail in the rules.
2-4 players
Ages 3+

This is a sweet little German tile game, where you roll the dice and race to spot the dwarf dressed in that same trio of colors. It's pretty and simple, and also Birdy always called it "Gorvin Dice," which we loved for no particular reason. "Dwarf" turns out to be a tricky word for her, given that only recently she asked if it was only his helpers, or of Santa himself was a "dorf." That website seems to have lots of lovely little German games. 
2-8 players
Ages 3+


This was another favorite of the early years, and we played and played until I poked a hole in my head with a fork and my liquefied brain dripped out onto the floor. Did I ever tell you how once, when I was doing some consulting for Hasbro, they showed me all their games, and when we got to this one, I announced, "Oh! Hi Hi Boring-O! Believe me, I've played it." Always a class act. Still, this game is all about the little plastic cherries. That's, like, the most exciting thing ever, and so your small children will love it.
2-4 players
Ages 3+
Now this, on the other hand, is an unboring game. It is similar to--but easier than--the regular version of Mastermind, and it requires the same process-of-elimination strategy. It is probably the first strategy game we ever played with either kids, and they loved it mostly because the pieces are shaped like animals and the colors are great.
2 players
Ages 5+


Sleeping Queens
I love Gamewright games (Rat-a-tat Cat is another good one, as is Zeus on the Loose) and this one might be the one we played the most when the kids were younger. It's got a little bit of memory, a little bit of strategy, some silliness, and great art. Plus, it only takes about 20 minutes to play, which makes it good for those useless little windows of time that my life seems to be pocked with.
2-5 players
Ages 6+



Make Me a Cake goes down smooth and easy, even with the littlest players, and the kids love it not because it challenges their strategic thinking (it doesn't) but because it's cake. The pieces are pretty and sparkly, and the cakes are glam and gorgeous. Who won? Who cares.
1-4 players
Ages 3+


This was the first game Birdy really loved, and it's a great introduction to the process of elimination as well as to racial and gender stereotypes. Plus, it's very quick to play! Which is good, because it's also boring and offensive. I'm just saying.
2 players
Ages 5+
When the kids were younger, it was our favorite family board game for ages. It's mostly a game of luck, but I actually love it for the way it teaches kids resilience in the face of getting screwed--especially because, in our family at least, you have to say "Sorry" with an irritatingly drawn-out mix of meanness and irony whenever you send someone's piece back to home. And you've just got to comport yourself with grace in the face of it: a good lesson, I'm not even kidding. (Hasbro calls it "the game of sweet revenge.") Plus, it's a pretty fun game, a pleasantly mindless one, and the kind that's never over til it's over.
2-4 players
Ages 6+

Party Games








This is an Apples to Apples type of party game: players toss out pairs of cards to create a product to match the theme, then they try to “sell” their product, so the judge of each round can decide on a winner. So for example, one time the theme was “couch potato,” and Ben tossed out the cards “oven” and “powder” then sold it as a unique solution to cooking your food ("Just sprinkle oven powder on it!") without getting up. Birdy, on the other hand, sold her own unique laziness solution with the handy defecetory product “poop carpet.” Got it? 
3-10 players
Ages 8 and up.


Dixit is a fantastic game: like a cross between the dictionary game (or Balderdash, if you're high-tech like that) and Apples to Apples and something totally different--with super-weird, pleasantly creepy art and buckets of creativity. It's also insanely easy to learn. We played it with my parents and Ben and Birdy--and the fact that everybody loved it, and scored similarly (except for one person who won because this is kind of what she, ahem, does professionally) proved to me its tremendous value. Birdy has also used the cards as creative-writing prompts, because that's the kind of person she is.

3-6 players
Ages 7+

The above-mentioned Balderdash and Apples to Apples Jr. are our other favorite party games, as is the homemade game fish bowl. As well as a game Ben invented that is very hush-hush for now.

Travel Games


Pocket Yamslam is a good, easy keep-in-Mama's-bag at all times game, which means it's what we play when we're waiting for our chicken wings. It's like Yahtzee, but much quicker.


Farkle is another of our favorite travel games, since you just need the six dice and a score sheet, and play is quick--for instance, you can get in a few rounds while you're waiting for your burgers, as long as you lay a napkin on the table to mute the sound of the clattering dice. It's simple to play (you need 5s and 1s to score) and it's not so much a strategy game as a gambling one: we are forever slapping our own foreheads and bemoaning our own greed and foolishness. Plus, it's so much fun to say, "Excuse me, I farkled." If you aren't giving this as a gift, and if you already have 6 dice from your Yahtzee set, then you can simply look the rules up on-line and skip the whole packaged aspect of it. Just be sure to play with the "piggy" rules to maximize your fun. (Google them if they're not included in your set.)
From 2 to loads of players
Ages 5+


Another rummy-style game, though this one is simply a deck of cards, which makes it great for travel. You need to complete 10 "phases"--ten specific hands--in the correct order, without falling behind your opponents, and it's a game that Ben and I used to play together a lot, just the two of us, even though it's fun with more people (but slower too). It is somehow engaging without being exactly strategy-driven, and it's also small and inexpensive enough to be a good stocking stuffer. 
2-6 players
Ages 7+


FitzIt is a small, good-natured word game that forces you to synthesize various categories into single, point-scoring words.
2-10 players
Ages 7+

This is pretty much a color-themed card-game version of Zooloretto (see above), and we were lucky enough to find a copy at the Salvation Army! I know! It's a little quicker, a little easier to learn, a little less competitive, and not nearly as cute. A great travel game. 
2-5 players
Ages 7+

Puzzles


Colorku
This is sudoku, but instead of numbers, you use colored balls to complete the puzzles (there are a hundred challenges that get progressively harder). All four of us love it, and the level of challenge-feeling ranges from a kind of brain-churning competence to something like a tangled, numbing conviction that that there is something wrong with your mental processing apparatus. We work on it alone, or in pairs or clumps, and it is deeply engaging and fun and companionable. I cannot recommend it enough. Plus, the pieces are painted wood, and there is something very beautiful about them. The pastel ones remind me of Dutch mints. (Full disclosure: I actually had to quit this game for a while. The family refers to this period of time, gravely, as "Mama's Colorku addiction.")

Wait, this isn't a video game? They told me it was a video game.
This is Perplexus Epic. Do you need a large, clattery, and expensive ball of plastic in your house? Kind of! It’s a 3-D maze and, for us, it’s sort of a compromise—like a mechanical version of a video game, given that the kids don’t do a lot of screen stuff. It seems good for the old hand-eye coordination and logic-development, if you go in for those sorts of things. Plus, it’s great for odds and ends of time and, strangely, social: they watch each other play, even though you can’t begin to imagine why. If your kids are new to this large, clattery, expensive plastic phenomenon, then start with the original, less-epic Perlexus.
A total trip down candy-memory lane, right?


If a large, fun jigsaw puzzle is in your holiday-vacation plans, please allow me to recommend Candy Wrappers. We did it with our friends Meg and Pete over the summer, and I can’t think of one I’ve liked better. Oooh, except for this one, which is delicious in more of a Frank Lloyd Wright kind of way.







What can I say? White Mountain puzzles are my absolute favorite: relatively inexpensive, hard but not too hard, and with great nostalgic themes that captivate even the most reluctant passersby (except my father).

38 comments:

  1. Hi Catherine,

    I don't frequently read your blog, but my girlfriend Chris is a huge fan. She often points out to me when you mention board games (Agricola is also my favorite board game!).

    Anyway, just wondering if you've ever heard of the web series Tabletop.

    You mention Ben having to pre-digest the rules of more complex games so that he can present it to you guys to learn more easily. I've often thought it would be cool if there were a well produced web series that did easy to understand tutorials of games that showed you basically how to play them in a way that's more fun than digesting a rulebook.

    Wil Wheaton does just that on a bi-weekly basis in this half hour show. I like it quite a bit.

    Check it out if you get a chance.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHmf1bau9xQ

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  2. Oh, have you ever played Spot it? Hugely popular in our house, easily transportable since it fits in my purse, and it works for all ages. The grandparents, aunts, uncles and kids all love it and are equally good at it.

    The other big one in our family for travel and inter-generational play is Pass the Pigs. I think that it can be a drinking game, but I try not to do that with the kids around at least.

    I tried to link to the Amazon pictures, but am such a Luddite that I should be proud that I managed to attach my name to this post successfully. You'll have to check them out yourself -- I think that you'll be happy that you did.

    Thanks for all the suggestions -- I am looking forward to a big shopping trip!

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  3. Some great suggestions, thank you! I'm so happy you didn't include the game "Beetle" which my kids used to love and which made me want to stick a fork in my eye.

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  4. I was all ready to giggle at your game obsession when I realized to my embarrassment/ pride that we own most of these games! (Is there a German word for that? Embarrassment mixed with pride? I'm guessing there is). My kids are a bit younger than yours, so we don't have many of the more complicated games yet, but I think just about all of our favorites are on your list.

    I would agree with the commenter above (Susan) that Spot It is wonderful for a mixed-age group. My four year old often beats the grown-ups, even when we are trying our very hardest. We had a wonderful time at a family reunion with Sleeping Queens which was simple enough for pre-readers to play and interesting enough to keep the older kids and adults having fun, too. And Uno is a fun one for mixed-age groups. We really enjoy so many of these!

    My only quibble with the list is Mastermind with Kids, which, in my opinion, was designed by someone who never actually attempted to play it. The dumb little pieces fall all over the place and the whole game ends in mad frustration if someone taps the board by accident. You can't really see what the animals are unless you hold them an inch from your face. I would recommend getting regular mastermind and just modifying the rules. It is an excellent game, design issues aside. And my oldest and I particularly love Bohnanza but I would never call it "super-easy to learn." Maybe we're just a bit dense, but laughing over the completely inscrutable and complicated directions is how we always begin that game, and we are constantly reassuring people that it is much easier than it sounds and will be clearer once we start playing.

    In terms of categories and information to add-- I would suggest that you might add a category for games you can play with a mixed-age group, which we find challenging. Perhaps you could list approx. cost as some of the strategy ones are very expensive and approx. time per game? Of course, all that information is just a click away, so there's really no reason you should have to do all that work, but since you asked for ideas of useful things to add, I thought I'd suggest it. And lastly-- maybe I missed it, but was Rat-a-tat-cat on the list? That one's great for lots of ages and it is a really nice, small, quick game, perfect for waiting for food to arrive at a restaurant, etc.

    I will refer back to this at birthday/ Christmas time! Thanks!

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  5. Anonymous7:56 PM

    Thanks to your previous games posts, the kids and I (husband, not so much) adore Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan. I'm saving this list for Christmas (I always get 1 board game as a present), and I LOVE the $5/hr babysitting idea, as my kids are just old enough (13 and 10) to be left alone). You are just brilliant!!
    Loretta

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  6. Anonymous8:02 PM

    Oh, I forgot to mention, have you heard of Kubb? It is a fabulous ancient Swedish game, played outdoors (preferably with a glass of wine/beer in hand to aid coordination) using blocks of wood. I can't explain it properly so here:
    http://www.kubb.com.au/KUBB_Buy.html
    Loretta

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  7. Your kids might be too old to be into this simple card game, but I loved "Set" and it's a game I give a lot as a present to families with kids in early elementary school. It's about speed, but also about spotting patterns and about permutations so it takes more taxing than usual spacial and creative thought. Plus, it's pretty. It's just hard enough that to beat kids I have to TRY. I'm convinced it will help the math part of your brain, but I've got no proof on that because I'm terrible at math.

    Also, under Games for Younger Children, I think you mean "too" not "to."

    I wish my husband liked games. It's not the whole reason we need to hurry up and have kids, but it's a pretty big reason. I need people to play games with.

    Finally, your kids are probably ready to learn mahjong. I know that sounds lame, but it is one of the most fun games I've ever played. The rules and the goals change every year (you have to send in for a current card) and you can play it slow when you're learning or fast when you've learned and it has all of these phases which have fun names. Like, at one point, you have to do this tile trading which is called...wait for it...the Charleston. There is also a tile called a birdy bam.

    I love games.

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    1. I added Set. Mahjong! Looking into it. . .

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  8. Thank you so much for your suggestions!!! I am going to update this soon.

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  9. Hi! I love your list. Can't wait to try some of them. Two you might want to try are 7 Wonders and Set!

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  10. Anonymous5:40 PM

    I've heard about Agricola so often now that I think I need to buy it. One can never have too many German game options (especially since I am a German), right?
    I heartily second the recommendations from other readers for Set, Spot It, and Kubb - the third being a game that even non-game-people tend to love, since it's physical. I also recommend Ligretto - as simple as Uno but oh, so much more fun (and no waiting or turn-taking!) - and Café International, the card game - fun even for just two people. I've heard that the original (big) version is also great, but have never played it.
    Thanks for the list!

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  11. Anonymous2:45 AM

    Visiting from Germany I was impressed to see that you have "Power Grid". Your game collection covers pretty much all the important basics. (Well almost, i didn't spot a Tichu card set, but that might be hidden somewhere...)

    I second the recommendations 7Wonders(for 4 players and more) and Set and you might want to check out Germany's Game of the Year 2013 Hanabi, which is a unique cooperative firework building card game (and dirt cheap, too)

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  12. Anonymous12:51 PM

    Thanks for this awesome list! We love games too! I just wanted to suggest the game "Pandemic." The best part is it's cooperative - all players either beat the board (win) or not (lose) together. Somehow it still manages to be suspenseful and require lots of strategy, plus it's good practice for discussing strategy as teammates and letting everyone have a say.

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  13. Catherine--

    Ever a pleasure reading your blog. I've only ever commented once or twice and that may have been way back in the Babycenter days. Your game closet looks familiar, but I think you need Cathedral. Check it out--beautiful, unusual, and fun. We were playing it on our ferry ride back home from Newfoundland and had people coming over just to watch and play! This is the response we've been having for 20 years now! http://www.amazon.com/Family-Games-607-Cathedral-Classic/dp/B00000IZXG/ref=sr_1_1?s=toys-and-games&ie=UTF8&qid=1381167761&sr=1-1&keywords=cathedral+board+game

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  14. Thanks for this. I grew up on games, and my daughter did, as well. There are some here that I must try.

    You have got to give up the kid's master mind, skip over Master Mind and go straight to "Super Master Mind". It is for two players, one can read while the other guesses the code. And, keep a running tally (on the side). It has five holes and eight colors. In college, we used blanks as a ninth color. It is pure, 100% logic. If you make a "possible" answer every time, you will never take more than 7 turns!

    P.S. I probably like this game so much because I kick booty!

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  15. I can't wait for my kids to get older and play some of those games.

    I will add my 2 cents. My favorite game for 3-5 year olds was cranium cariboo but you can't seem to find it anymore.

    I just bought the Brain Quest Smart game. It is like trival pursuits but has questions geared for 1-6th grade. The downside is adults can't participate too much.

    A new favorite in Enchanted Forest by Ravesnwood. You roll dice but can use the dice separately, like 5 steps forward and 3 steps back. You have to land on specific spots to see what is under the tree. The goal is to uncover the one that is face up and then go to a specific spot and guess. It is a little like clue in that regard.

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  16. Donna3:56 PM

    Sequence.
    Munchkin Deluxe.
    The Beetle game (kids game).

    A must for any family games cupboard.

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  17. Just coming back to thank you for recommending "Love Letter". My oldest (age 11) and I are playing it just about every day since I bought it a month ago after reading your recommendation. I love that it is so quick-- perfect for the extra half hour she has after her little sibs go to bed, etc. And it's so small, you can carry it in your pocket. And the backstory of the game lends itself to lots of outrageous accents and silliness.

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  18. Good God, darlin'. You have the definitive list here and now if Michael will just get over here and tutor us in the ins and outs, we can get to some of the ones we have been intending to play for YEARS! I'm am just so glad to be past Hi-Ho-Cherry-o years - though Harry still claims to love it. Awesome!

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  19. Hi- I have NO IDEA how long ago this post was written, but I want to say thank you a thousand times over! We loooove board games at our house, and it's so fun to include everyone and see how different people's minds work. Two favorites of ours are Blink (which is advertised for two players but we've played with up to 4) and completely multi-age friendly from about 7 or so. The other one we like a lot is Taboo. Once they can read, it is amazing to see how they interpret the words that they have to get their teammates to guess. Totally a blast as a family or as a party game. And the sobriety advantage that the kids maintain becomes increasingly more noticeable as the laughter becomes increasingly louder.

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  20. Catherine - I came here because my husband and I own Anomia Press (he invented Anomia) and I heard you liked our game...and then I realized that you wrote the book that basically helped me survive my second pregnancy. I'm not kidding. We still have a standing ham tunnel joke because of you. Love that small world thing. I'm glad you like Anomia and I'm also really glad you decided to be a writer and have kids and write about it! I'd love to send you our other two games just to make your game cabinet look even more over the top. Tell me how to get 'em to you. Great list!

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    1. Yay! That is one of the best cases of small-world-itis I have had the pleasure of enjoying. Please SEND US GAMES! 70 Memorial Drive. Amherst, MA 01002. Hooray!

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  21. Thanks for the post - I'm sure I will be referring to it many times in coming years! I don't see our favorite mentioned, so if you haven't played Qwirkle definitely check it out. It took my husband and I months before we were finally able to beat our 7yo :).

    Can I ask where you got the shelves to store your games? I haven't found anything I like that is deep enough to store the long games like Candy Land sticking out like that and they take up so much space stored side-to-side. Thanks!

    And hi to Jody above :) It was her husband's sharing of this blog post on FB that led me to it.

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  22. Hi Laura! Those are IKEA shelves, a 5 X 5 expedit cube. They're often on craigslist, and we buy them used, since even IKEA is not cheap enough for us!

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  23. Hi! I know I probably shouldn't even be on this blog since I'm about Ben's age, but have you tried 7 ATE 9? It's made by the same people who made Snake Oil, which is just about my favorite game ever!

    PS As I'm reading this I find it odd how much Ben and I have in common!

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  24. We enjoy a lot of the same games! Other suggestions I have are:

    Gubs (says 10 and up, but our son has enjoyed it since he was 5--you just have to be able to read and strategize a bit)

    And I third the suggestion for 7 Wonders. Lots of replay value on that one. And it's great for 2 players too. Our Euro gaming friend always asks to play it when he comes over.

    And I also echo the recommendation for Pandemic. Similar games that Gamewright makes are Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert (different enough from Forbidden Island to own both)

    I also like the two player game Lost Cities.

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  25. Anonymous6:55 PM

    What about "Clue" and "Battleship"?!

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  26. Anonymous9:51 PM

    Love all the suggestions, and have bookmarked this page for future reference. I have a second for the Ravensburger games, which your kids may be getting too old for, but Labyrinth was the first game that my 7 year old and I both enjoyed playing. We still like it, quick and easy strategy game!

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  27. Second Labyrinth. My five year old loves it. The original board game version. Also, I love banangrams. Very fun and portable. Think Scrabble without waiting turns and tallying.

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  28. Anonymous12:21 PM

    I have to thank you---your games list has changed my life! It was sent to me by a friend who thought my born-a-gamer 6 year old would like some, and he does, but the bonus is that we all do. We now play, and love, Ticket to Ride, Dominion, Settlers of Catan, Gobblet, Phase 10, Sleeping Queens and Rat-a-Tat-Cat, and Bohnanza, all thanks to you (and I have a few others in the closet for a rainy day, and most of the others on my amazon list). Now I have a question for you:
    Both Zooloretto and Carcassonne Hunters and Gatherers are "out of print". I can get both on ebay for around $65 each, new. Are they worth that amount? If you say yes I will believe you and spend it! Thanks again!

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    1. Thank you for those kind words! Egads, out of print, really? Sheesh. Both of those have tremendous play value in our house, nonetheless, I thing another of the Carcassonnes, like the classic one or Wheel of Fortune, would get the job done. Zooloretto. . . I don't know what to say. It's definitely a favorite of ours. I can't believe they're out of print!

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    2. Anonymous10:37 AM

      Thanks--the reg. Carcassonne is still available, and (relatively) inexpensive, but maybe I'll spring for the Zooloretto one. I also have to tell you that I feel like you when I: (a) say "No, THIS is really my favorite game!" about one game after another, and (b) can't believe I spent my childhood playing Monopoly when these games are lightyears more fun! Oh, and I might as well add--Five Crowns is another fun card game that we love. Not so different from Phase 10 but the number of cards in your hand changes each round and so does which card is wild...so you need to focus to play well. I don't think that one was on your list yet.

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  33. Awesome games

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  34. Agricola looks interesting... my girls are not really into board games, all they do is play papas games cooking flash games, i would like them to try board games like Agricola

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