Luckily for me I have bunch of lovely friends who have either worked or parented their way through the joys of childhood and survived with gaming tales to tell: thanks (in no particular order) to Anita, Ronan, Chris, Csilla, Tony, Alan, Nik, Paul and Peter for their invaluable insight into the topic.
There are actually closer to 30 games in the list, as I’ve given alternatives as often as possible. The list is most likely to be useful to non-gamers, so this way if you find something that works well hopefully there will be something very similar you can go to next. Think of them as categories – and as such they’re in no particular order.
When it comes to ability, age range is a tough one to call. Put simply, you know your own kids: hopefully these brief descriptions will be enough for you to decide on a case-by-case basis whether you want to explore each in more depth. And it’s worth remembering you can ‘house rule’ most games down a level or two if you find them a little overwhelming for the littler ones – or yourself! Then you can introduce the more complex rules later.
And finally – try to play them without the kids the first time, if possible. It will be a much better experience if you know the rules before you begin, even if you don’t let that on to them. Nothing pops the bubble of a board/card experience quite like spending an hour with your head in a rulebook while the kids lose interest!
My Top 10 (ish) children’s games (five to eight year-olds)
The idea of co-operative board games is a relatively new one and has proved incredibly popular. The idea is all players work together to beat the game, with you succeeding or failing as a team. Forbidden Island is a very simple game in essence, and while it’s probably at the high end of this age scale the fact it has no hidden information means you can easily help each other. If this goes well, the same designer did a follow-up called Forbidden Desert – a nice take on the same idea that’s different enough to move on to if this works for you. While if you want more complex in the same system, the incredibly popular Pandemic takes the system to the next level.
This is a fast, light, bunny-themed roll-and-move dice game – but instead of one numbered dice you roll seven coloured dice, choose a colour, and move as many spaces as you rolled of that colour. There are elements of push-your-luck too (you don’t want to get scared off by the train), making it a nice introductory level game that will give the kids genuine decisions to make. The Enchanted Tower is another interesting take on traditional role-and-move games, this time adding an element of bluff and hidden information (and it’s gorgeous).
Something that can be a great leveller between children and parents is a good dexterity game. Whether you’re balancing cards and trying to make skyscrapers (and not knock them all down with your rather heavy rhino) in Super Rhino (AKA Rhino Hero); balancing cute wooden animals on top of each other in Animal Upon Animal, or using your magic wand to manoeuvre your potion ingredients into the cauldron in Magician’s Kitchen, these games are almost guaranteed to make you laugh. And they’re beautifully put together too, even if some of the themes are a little, shall we say, leftfield…
Sticking with dexterity games, let’s move from steady hands to getting your co-ordination right – another area where the kids may surprise their unsuspecting parents. Looping Louis has been around since the early nineties but is still great value: can you protect your chickens from the crazy flying antics of Louis? It’s all in the timing as you try to bounce his little battery-powered plane over your chickens and onto those of the other players. And if they’re Star Wars fans, check out the recent Looping Chewie (I kid you not). I also have to recommend Crazy Coconuts, where you fling coconuts into cups with your little plastic monkey…
If you want to fire your children’s imaginations, there are some great tools out there to help. One is Dixit – a game where you look at some cards with beautiful artwork and think of a word/phrase/sentence that describes one of them – then hope other player’s (but not all of them!) will think the same as you. Alternatively there are Rory’s Story Cubes (roll the dice and use the symbols on them to make up a story – with various sets, covering themes from to Batman) and Apples to Apples (a silly game where one person reads out a ‘description’ card – and then the other players choose a ‘thing’ card from their hand that best matches it – the sillier and funnier the better).
Back in the land of dexterity (last time, promise) we have Dobble – a popular little card game where the skill is in matching symbols on cards as quickly as possible – a loud and raucous game of snatching/slapping cards onto the table. Another slightly more dangerous option is Dancing Eggs, which comes in a one-dozen egg box and has you trying to grab as many of the wickedly bouncing little buggers as possible. And I also need to mention In a Bind – a hilarious game which is kind of like the classic twister, but with a deck of cards instead of a play mat…
Push your luck, with dice in particular, is a classic game mechanism and there are some great games available. While Yahtzee is OK, King of Tokyo takes it to the next level with battling monsters – or you could go for roasting worms on the barbecue with the classic Pickomino. But Sid Sackson’s Can’t Stop is probably the daddy of them all – a lesson in probability that’s so much fun.
Building routes and patterns is brilliant, taking the classic jigsaw idea and making proper games out of it. Carcassonne is probably the most famous game of its type and My First Carcassonne is recommended for 4-10 year-olds. There are some other great examples too, including the likes of Tsuro and Indigo that are more simply (but fiendishly) about building routes on an evolving abstract board; as well as Totemo (building coloured totem poles through clever colour matching) and Blokus (gain as much territory as you can on a grid with your Tetris-style pieces).
Another important life lesson can be learned from a good take-that game (allegedly). Here you choose three cards to play then reveal them one by one – but you can guarantee no one will be where you wanted them to be after the first one! It’s all about pushing the other players overboard, but things never seem to work out how you wanted them too. Get Bit is another fun take-that simultaneous card selection game (this time seeing robots trying to swim from sharks…); while another favourite of mine is (Cockroach) Kakerlaken Poker Royal – a great take-that bluffing game that will prove to you (if any were needed) just how easy it is for your children to lie to you!
Animals on Board
Last up are a couple of games that can introduce (as well as new gamers) to other popular game mechanisms. Animals on Board is a great introduction to ‘I split, you choose’, where players either take a group of animals for their ark (trying to get anything but pairs – because Noah has clearly cornered that market); or split a current group and grab some food, making it smaller/easier to grab for their opponents (you need one food for each animal taken – hence having to take food sometimes). Another great option is Sushi Go! – a fun introduction to the ‘drafting’ card game mechanism, where you take one card from a hand and then pass the rest, hoping to end up with a great combination of cards to play.
NOTE: At time of posting (September 2016) all of these games were available and in print from either Board Game Guru and/or Amazon. And quite a few of them are available from Coiledspring Games too – a long-time supporter of this blog.