It’s very hard to put together a list of great family games… for a start, there are probably a good many family games we’ve not played. Then, we’ve played a lot of great family games. Then, how do you define great? Games come in different forms… and so do families, come to that. So here we’ve broken them down – completely arbitrarily – into sub-categories. These games are very different, and have different reasons for being great.
The one for playing with young kids
As expressed elsewhere in Games Theory, it’s often easier to teach kids a game than it is adults, who can sometimes view a game with either jaded cynicism or outright suspicion. And games publishers seem to underestimate children too. Which is why games like Lords of Waterdeep – to name but one – seem ludicrously “over-aged” to me. If a kid is willing to sit down and learn the rules of a game at all, then maybe spending 20 minutes explaining it to them isn’t that big a deal. But of course not everyone is that patient, which is why simplicity has informed my first choice: BLOKUS. A really simple game of trying to get rid of your tetris-style pieces on a grid, the rules can be learned in about 30 seconds, the entire game takes less than 20 minutes but is very re-playable. Children as young as four can ‘get’ this straight away. And despite its easy accessibility and friendly appearance, repeat plays will show you that there is potential to play strategically too.
The one for playing when you don’t want an argument
If sibling rivalry is a regular feature in your house then instead of a game that encourages it, why not one that negates it? Co-operative games are legion these days, and whilst they cannot guarantee a disagreement-free environment, they’re far less likely to encourage any board-flipping tantrums. One of the best – if the slightly bleak theme doesn’t put you off – is PANDEMIC, where the players collaborate to both fight off the worldwide spread of four diseases, and simultaneously wipe out the bugs themselves. It’s a cleverly designed game, and a genuine challenge. Plus, considering its rather epic theme, it plays in an almost perfunctory time: usually about an hour.
The one for playing when you do
If you have players who really relish a battle then you’re spoilt for choice, but one of our go-to games at GNG when we want to blow each other into next week is QUANTUM. Why? Because it’s as much a puzzle as it is a battle. The game encourages players to go on the offensive by blowing each other up, but because every ship (there are six kinds, represented by sides of a die) has its own special power, it’s possible to cleverly put together a sneaky winning move that the other players haven’t spotted. A bit of a mind-melter on first play (it nearly doesn’t qualify as a ‘family game’) and one for ‘older’ players, return visits will see you chop down the play-time dramatically.
The one for a long Sunday Afternoon
…Or indeed a Saturday night. Many gamers actively avoid long games, but some people love them. And if you’re one of the latter we can’t recommend CAVERNA highly enough. It might look like the game to put you off games forever, but once you’ve played it you realize that at heart it’s a simple game of worker placement: send out a member of your family to get you stuff. There’s no ‘wrong moves’, there’s no fighting, there’s no player elimination. The complexity all stems from the amount of choice you have on your turn, because Caverna is generous with its choices.
The one that is rather silly
RIFF RAFF is a game of balancing stuff on a ship – a canny bit of engineering sees a wooden boat mounted on a gimbal – and as the players add more and more pieces to it, the challenge is to stop the ship from tilting so much that various pieces all slide off into the sea. Muck it up and you add the fallen pieces to your own hand, setting you back several turns, because your objective is to get shot of all your pieces… Brutal, and funny.
The one to get hooked on
The first play bump on 7 WONDERS can be tricky to negotiate. The heart of the game is simple: over 18 rounds, you choose a card to add to your ‘Wonder’. But what you choose is rather trickier: cards represent various buildings and different buildings score in different ways. Some don’t score at all, but allow you to build more rewarding buildings later in the game… if you can’t build anything, you can burn a card for money, and you can use money to stand in for resources you don’t have; by buying them from your direct neighbors around the table. But it is really worth persisting with this game, because it only takes half an hour to play and is very re-playable: there are a lot of strategies to explore here, and the award-winning 7 Wonders is one of the few games that has broken into the high street shops – with good reason.
The one that changes your perception of what a game is
There are some wildly different games mechanics out there that put all kinds of twists on established notions of board (or card) gaming. But here is a game for people who espouse to hate games: CODENAMES. Dressed up in a spying theme (which you can embrace or ignore as you wish) Codenames is all about lateral thinking and making connections between words. You can play as several teams or individuals, as one big team, or even as two teams with one person on both sides. Winning isn’t really the point with this game – it might add a nice tension but the fun of this is trying to align your thinking and ‘getting’ the clues… (similar conversation-based gaming can also be found with the excellent Spyfall)
The enduring classic
You can find our thoughts on the likes of Monopoly elsewhere on the site. The enduring classic in our eyes is CATAN, the game launched in the early 90’s that began a revolution in game design, away from roll-and-yawn bores into a brighter, far more interesting world of games that has thrived despite coinciding with the advent of digital gaming. Strategy, tactics, luck, pushing-your-luck, trading… it’s all here and the game still stands up brilliantly. Suitable for children of all ages.
The one you can play anywhere
PAIRS is an oh-so-simple card game that is all about pushing your luck. You can learn it in one minute and play it in ten. As long as everyone’s okay with having their hands implode on a regular basis (it’s possible to end a game with no points at all whilst someone else charges to a ludicrously jammy victory) it’s another one to potentially get hooked on.
The one for quiz show fans
And Pictionary fans, and party game fans… Simple rules and combine with a bit of guesswork to make DIXIT a genuine classic, where you’re trying to fool people who at the same time are trying to fool you.
The one you can play almost anywhere
All you need for PUSH-IT is a table. Cracking fun.