Monday, November 22, 2010

The Board-Game Round-up

Dear Ones,

On the off-chance you'll be celebrating Thanksgiving later this week, I've posted a Sparkling Cranberry Centerpiece here, and the world's best Brussels sprouts here.

(Oh, and also: I *did* do something with the leftover cranberry syrup!

I stirred two packets of plain gelatin into a cup of boiling water until it dissolved, then stirred in two cups of the syrup and stuck it in the fridge for a couple of hours. Delicious.)

But the main reason I'm writing today is to post the board-games round-up I've been promising for, oh, I don't know, a year? I am so lame. But I swore I'd get it up in time for the holidays, and here I am, doing that. As always, if we generate a bunch of credit on Amazon, I'll do a give-away. Of board games, of course! That will be so much fun! Also, I will happily try to answer any questions you ask in the comments section here.

Editing years later to add: current links to board games are at the games index, up in the upper right hand corner of this blog.

Okay, to sum up: 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? I'm assuming that you already have Scrabble, Yahtzee, Boggle (which our kids prefer to play without a timer), Chinese Checkers, and Bananagrams--all of which are crucially excellent games. So what I'm doing here is introducing you to some games you might not know, in particular some of the European-style board games that we love: these are strategy games that involve very little luck and very little boring down-time; they tend to be deceptively simple to learn and wildly complex to play, and they 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.

The European-style games:

This might be our all-time favorite game, although New World (see below) is definitely contending. For one thing, it's 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 for another, it's just this crazy mix of simple (draw a tile, lay a tile) and mind-blowingly strategic This is the first European-style board game we ever played--we borrowed it from a friend before buying it--and, 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+

The play is very similar to Hunters and Gatherers (or to the original medieval-themed Carcassonne which is, strangely, our least favorite so far), but this one has a westward-expansion theme, and offers a different style of play: quicker and more fluid, with lots of short-term strategy. You're building farms, towns, and roads (instead of meadows, forests, and rivers), but the play is very easy to learn if you've learned any of the other Carcassonne games--kind of like learning Italian if you already speak Spanish.
2-5 players
Ages 7+

[edited to add: I wrote "westward expansion," and didn't even pause over it, until now, because I am in it to win, and never think holistically about the themes of these games, but: "westward expansion"? As in, the near-genocide of native people? I don't know. Stick with Hunters and Gatherers maybe. . . ]

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+

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, but we've never tried any.
3-4 players (more if you get an expansion)
Ages 8+

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+

Acquire and Modern Art are Ben's two very most favorite board games--even though they're the ones we actually play the least because Birdy doesn't like either of them. And it's no coincidence. 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)
Okay, of all of the mind-twisting games we play, this is the mind-twistingest. In fact, every time we play it, I say, "Oh, wow, I think I'm only just beginning to understand this game now." And we've played it, like, a hundred times. It's an art-themed auction game, where you're trying to get the other players to buy your paintings for a lot of money, but you're also trying to control who the most valuable artists are--and you need to think long-term, since the game progresses over four rounds. It offers some fun theatrical opportunities (you might auction off your paintings with a heavy accent, for example), but I for one feel like the art is a missed opportunity, since each of the paintings is uniquely ugly. Please note, however, that I'm the only person bothered by this fact.
3-5 players
Ages 10+

The other games:

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. I'm never quite sure what makes it so much fun, but it is, and it has been our go-to birthday present for months.
2-4 players
Ages 6+

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+

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 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+

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+

Rumis is like Blokus taken into a third dimension: you're recreating imaginary Incan architecture (there are a number of boards you can use) and you've got to get more of your pieces out than your opponent. It's challenging, quick, and varied--and fun for both adults and kids.
2-4 players
Ages 6+

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+

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.
From 2 to loads of players
Ages 5+

Guess who demanded that I include this game in my line-up? I'll give you a hint: she's the youngest person in my family. And she's the person who still wants to play Guess Who if it's just her and me on what she calls "a date"--when Ben and Michael happen not to be home. This was the first game Birdy really loved, and it's a great introduction to the process of elimination (what the Cat in the Hat calls "calculatus eliminatus"). Plus, it's very quick to play! Which is good, because it's also boring and forces you to ask weirdly reductive questions about race and gender. I'm just saying.
2 players
Ages 5+
Even though we don't play this anymore, I need to give Sorry a little bit of love here. 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+

Okay, that's it for now! I hope you'll use the comments to opine, inquire, and offer your own suggestions.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Wow. Could it be any Novemberier? Honestly. I love it when the weather gets so candid like this: blustery and raw with a scrim of ice over everything, the dark descending all day long. Then my dread can ebb away and I can just deal with it. You know?


Michael made an apple pie.  Read all about it!

(He looks deceptively sweet there, doesn't he? When really. . . .

as we all know. . . )

Then the kids made fancy pastries with the leftover dough.

And then I read this book. And was totally devastated.

Then it was Garfield Day Halloween:

complete with flower fairies big and small:

And then I read this book. And was totally devastated.

And then we took ourselves up to MASS MoCA, where there happened to be an amazing exhibit about gender and junk called "Pink & Blue Projects." Guess who happened to be wearing pink?

Love that boy.

Then I made Whole-wheat Pasta with Broccoli Pesto and Garlicky Breadcrumbs.

Phew. I hope that you and all your knights and vampires, witches and rainbow fairies, platypuses and deviled eggs, ninjas and angels and eagles and sandwiches have had a magical couple of weeks.

And finally: Laura, how did you guess? We did indeed find a young woman in the woods, pregnant and afflicted with the wandering amnesia, and we brought her home with us and fed her delicious pastas and nourishing soups while we waited for her memory to return. Or something like that. xo