All posts by johnhornberger

Board game enthusiast - owner of over 1,000 board and card games of every style. Firm believer that there is a perfect game for every person

All Time Top Ten Family Games (Still in Print)

This is an important topic! Board gaming is experiencing a renaissance, and more and more, “mainstream” shoppers will be looking to “experts” in the tabletop gaming industry for recommendations. It’s important we learn to speak the same language and not be all over the map (despite the fact that we are, literally, all over the map) when we are discussing certain aspects of our increasingly popular hobby. SCROLL DOWN FOR THE LIST ITSELF!

In my last post on the subject, I laid out four criteria that should be considered for making a “family” game: Cross-Generational Appeal, Bonding Elements, Family Friendliness, and Simplicity. There are MANY games that meet several of these criteria extremely well, and those games exist on many lists of favorite family games, but in order to make this list, a game has to meet ALL FOUR criteria.

Cross-Generational Appeal seems obvious enough, because a family is by definition a multi-generational group. A great family game is one that can be engaged in and enjoyed by the kids, the adults, or the seniors, and most importantly, by everyone at the same time. There is a natural social barrier between youngsters and oldsters that a great game will help break down, sometimes by allowing kids to show sophisticated strategy or a demonstration of knowledge, and sometimes by allowing grandpa to cut loose, relax, and laugh. Or vice-verse. The key is a game that every player has equal access to, is equally challenging to everyone, and is equally likely to result in a satisfying challenge or a laugh. There are all-time great party games that families have always enjoyed, but they’re often best enjoyed with age-mates who know the same references and are more likely to have equal skills or knowledge. On the other hand, games typically considered “family games” are actually just kids’ games, and are not equally challenging, fun, or appealing to adults.

Bonding Elements exist in games that offer the opportunity for players to engage their own wits, or games that involve funny situations or references that everyone can laugh at – and nothing bonds like sharing a good laugh. The right game will instantly melt a generational barrier, and memories are made that can literally last a lifetime. Another angle on bonding can arise from thematic games, if it’s a theme the whole family is already attracted to. Team games (sometime requiring a bending of the rules) are often great ways to pair up people from different generations, and the anxiety and exhilaration brought on by game situations has a way of cementing relationships. There is a whole “new” (not really new, but now much more visible and popular) category of cooperative games that pit the players against the game itself, and there is nothing like a common struggle to bring people together. In any case, the players are emotionally involved at the same time and at the same targets.

There are some great games that are R-rated or worse. Some games have sexual content (e.g. Cards Against Humanity) or exceptional violence (e.g. Kablamo) that are simply inappropriate for kids. Still other games have a cutthroat element that would be unseemly between adults and kids if used as intended (e.g. Diplomacy). A great game is therefore Family Friendly. Even if the kids are old enough to deal with certain topics, older generations often feel embarrassed to find out about it. It is often hard for even a 20-year old to play the sexy santa card in from of Grandma. There is not much more awkward than a bewildered kid at the table when these topics arise, and the enjoyment for all is lessened as a result.

Finally, the rules and strategy of the game must be relatively simple. Simplicity kind of goes without saying, but the recent wave of board games are often good because of the interesting complications they introduce. Unfortunately for many, that puts them beyond the reach of children or intellectually challenged adults, or even those many, many adults who are too impatient to read more than a page of rules. If it’s not relatively easy to play right out of the box, and it can’t be taught quickly by a knowledgable player, then it’s less likely to be a great family game. On the other hand, too simple may simply not be challenging enough. Every player should actually have the ability to intentionally affect the outcome of the game.

This list is based on the four criteria I listed above. There are MANY games that are great with families, but these meet all four criteria, and would unfailingly provide challenge and fun for any family. I break them up based on number of players because that of course results in very different contexts for gaming. I also only included games that are on the market:

2-player games 4-player games 5-8 player games 9+ player games
Mastermind Cornerstone Scotland Yard Telestrations
Qwirkle Pit Apples to Apples
Rummikub Uno Werewolf/Mafia

2 player games:

– Mastermind (Pressman) Lots of two player games are fun, but they are usually battles of wits. So let’s face it – adults have an overwhelming advantage over children until the child becomes very experienced. Chess, Checkers, Stratego, and many other very good games are imperfect for families because if it’s complex enough for an adult to enjoy, a child will usually be at a disadvantage. Not so with Mastermind, in which one player sets up a code based on colored pegs that the other player must try to decode in a minimum number of turns. Siblings can play each other, parents can play their kids, and grandparents can play their first grade grandchildren and still enjoy it. It’s centuries old and it’s a game that every household should have.

– Honorable Mention: Chess and  Checkers and Backgammon and Chinese Checkers. These are easy and can be challenging, and exist in many many incarnations everywhere. Every home needs them.

3-4 player games:

Rack-O (Milton Bradley) This game goes back to 1956, and consists of cards numbered 1-60. Players alternate drawing cards and placing them in one of ten slots in their specially designed rack, with the ultimate goal of being the first to get all ten cards in order. The rack is initially filled in a random order, and on each turn players decide whether to draw face-up from the discard pile, or from a face down pile, and then where in their rack to place it – and thus which card to discard. It’s simple, challenging, and after one or two plays any advantage an older person might have is gone.

Cornerstone (Good Company Games) A more recent addition to tabletop gaming (2008), Cornerstone combines building skill with pawn movement with probability. Unit blocks consist of 1-6 units in various shapes and composed of checkerboard-pattern sequences of cubes of natural wood and cubes that are one of four colors (one for each player). Players roll a die to determine which piece they must use (1-6 units), then add it to a common tower in such a way that it maintains a checkerboard pattern, THEN they must try to move their pawn across neutral or own-colored blocks to occupy the highest possible position, one step at a time. This game can be enjoyed by just about anybody – it requires some physical skill but not a lot, some strategy but nothing complex, and it gets very tense, especially towards the end.

Qwirkle (MindWare, 2006) is another relatively recent board game, which shot right through the independent outlets into mass retail. Qwirkle is essentially a rummy-type tile-laying game, in which players alternate the placement of tiles to create interlocking rows and columns of tiles that have either the same color and different shape, or the same shape and different color. Points are scored for laying tiles and for obtaining a “qwirkle” – a lineup of six tiles, six being the number of different shapes and colors. The set-making requirement of Qwirkle is simple enough for youngsters to grasp right away, the tiles are large and easy to manipulate for young and old hands, and the patterns that result from gameplay are attractive.

– Honorable Mentions: Scrabble should be in every household (see chess etc above), even if adults have a decided advantage over kids, and some people love word games more than others.  Labyrinth is a game of shifting passages that has been around for several decades and is universally loved. Sequence is another game that lends itself to family play very well, and can be played in teams. Blokus is a colorful tile-laying game that’s easy to learn and play but probably favors adults. Pandemic is a relatively new, cooperative game that is on many lists of favorite family games, but it’s a little complex (can’t be explained in just a few minutes), and while children can keep up, it’s the adults who stand a better chance at leading to a win.

5-8 player games:

Pit (Parker Brothers, 1904) is a personal favorite of mine. Any group of 5-9 can grab this game and play. It only takes a minute to explain, it’s fast-paced (but even the slow have a chance to win), and it’s loud. It pretty much embodies the aspects of a lively family get-together. Pit is based on commodity trading. There is a 9-card hand of commodities (such as sugar, wheat, corn, etc) for each player in the game; all cards are shuffled and redealt, and at the sound of a bell players start trading in order to try to achieve a full hand of a single commodity. Trading is done with any other person at the table,  one trade at a time, for up to three cards (of a single commodity) at a time. When a player does “corner the market” they yell “Pit” and the round is over. Different commodities gain differing point amounts, and those points go to the winner of the round. This is a game that granddads and granddaughters can play, with sibings and parents and cousins of any age joining in, and it’s hard to play without a lot of laughs.

Uno (Mattel, 1971) is typically seen as a kids’ game, most likely because it’s so easy to learn and so easy to carry around (It’s just a deck of cards). But adults can play and enjoy it just as well, and any age range can easily sit down and have a fun time playing. It involves several decks of various colors with a range of numbered cards as well as “penalty” cards in each color and wild cards. The goal in each round is to be the first to go out, and failing that to minimize the number of points in your hand. The fun of Uno stems from the penalty cards. They are worth more points (so getting them stuck in your hand is very undesirable), but they alter the game by reversing the order of play, requiring a player to pick up extra cards, or skipping the next player. There is also a wild “draw four” card that has ruined many a game for a player about to go out. This game has been around for a while, and exists in many different forms and variations today.

Scotland Yard (Ravensburger, 1983) is a cooperative game – mostly – because one player acts as a criminal and the other players team up to capture the the first. Play begins on a map of London, where the criminal (“Mr X”) is hidden and the “detectives” are spread out. Each player has a set of transportation passes: Taxi allows movement from one block at a time (node to node) on the map, bus allows movement several blocks at a time, and subway allows movement many blocks at a time. Mr X will move several times, only revealing his mode of transportation, then “surface” after three moves and then every five. This leaves the detectives to deduce the criminal’s future location, which, in order to capture Mr X, they must land on while occupied. Mr X also has a couple of “boat tickets” that allow escape by river, and two 2x move tickets that allow two moves at once. All in all there is a lot of positive energy (tension and release) and a great opportunity for adults and kids to work together to find the criminal, not to mention the logical thinking inherent in the game.

Honorable Mentions: Lest I forget, Dominoes and Playing Cards are must-haves in every home. There are unlimited possibilities for domino and especially card games, and many gaming families have their roots in card games. Clue is a classic for a reason – another game that involves logic, and never fails to offer a challenge for all ages. The 5-8 player category is absolutely FULL of great, newer generation games that would be suitable for many families (if not all – the young don’t stand a chance to win a fair competition against their elders). Some popular titles include Ticket to Ride, Carcassone, and Settlers of Catan. Finally, there is a slew of new cooperative games that are a lot of fun to play and are also family favorites according to many other lists: Forbidden Island, Forbidden Desert, and Flashpoint each require players to work together and beat the game – and winning almost always comes down to the last possible play or two, so they are exciting.

9+ player games:

Werewolf/Mafia (1986): In the now classic parlor game of Mafia from 1986 and nicely packaged in various ways today (i.e., Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow; Asmodee, 2001), Players gather in a single room and face each other, while the moderator sets the scene of alternating days and nights. Players are randomly and secretly assigned a role as either an innocent or a killer (mafioso or werewolf). At night, the town goes to sleep (all shut their eyes), then the bad guys awaken and silently indicate to the moderator their choice for the next victim, who is then informed by a tap. When morning comes, the victim is discovered and the troubled innocents choose who will hang for the crime. The bad guys have to blend in and try to avoid being hanged, while the innocents have to try to identify the bad guys and hang them. This is all in all an intense but very fun game, and there are many variations on it. Kids can participate as readily as an adult, and any number that can fit in a room is okay.

Apples to Apples (Out of the Box, 1999) almost immediately became a family favorite when it came out. Its then unique mechanism of players matching noun cards with target adjective cards in the hopes of a single “judge” liking your match best has been imitated a lot since then. It did originally suffer from the problem of younger players not being familiar with the subjects of every card, but kids and then family versions came out, and now there are many variations. Kids and adults alike are unfailingly amused to see what card combinations are made, as well as the reasons people might give for choosing one match over another.

Telestrations (USAopoly, 2009) is relatively new, but just like Apples to Apples, it soon became ubiquitous. It originally played just 6, but a few years late they published a 12-player game, and as in any good party game, the more the merrier. It is essentially a variation on the old “telephone game:” players start with a word or phrase written on a spiral pad, which is then passed to the next player. The next player attempts to draw what the first player had written, and passes the pad to the third player, who then writes a word or phrase to describe the drawing. Player four draws it, player five writes it, and so on around the table. Just as the telephone game (which is simply the passage of a message around a circle) results in garbled or wholly different messages, the final result of a round of Telestrations is rarely   identifiable – but it is almost always hilarious. The whole family can play (or it can be played by age-mates alone), everyone plays at the same time, and everyone has a good time without fail.

Honorable Mentions: Games of 9 or more people are almost by definition party games, and most party games are adaptable (either by editing or teaming up) to children. Some, however, are better than others, if not as good as my top three choices. Charades-style games in which teams try to guess a target item from a clue-giving teammate are great: Taboo, Time’s Up, Catchphrase, and Reverse Charades are all a lot of fun. Trivia type games are good when either designed with kids in mind (Kids versus the Grown Ups) or when even teams are possible (20 Questions, Trivial Pursuit, Wits and Wagers). Games involving manipulation, drawing, or skill are also fun when edited or with teams: Cranium, Pictionary. A couple other very unique games are worth mentioning: Set involves the speed-identification of sets of matching or mutually exclusive elements, and Headbanz is the board game version of the old 20 questions game, in which players ask yes/no questions to deduce the identity of a card held on their own headband, for all others to see.

So there it is. I welcome real conversation about this list and my criteria, as opposed to votes for this game or that game. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend these games to ANY family, whether they are serious board-gamers or just looking to do something fun over a holiday weekend or on a slow weeknight. Either way,


Americans Need to Grow up and Play!

(This post appeared a few years ago in my other blog, but is being transferred over for safe keeping. Enjoy!)

Why is it that over in Europe, China, and Japan, adults are getting together to play board games in public places, and having a great time, but here in the US games are very often dismissed as frivolous child’s play? Are they wasting their time and energy engaging in child’s play? Or is there something Americans are missing?
No two ways about it, in my opinion: this is a deep problem with our culture. I won’t even begin to speculate about why this is the case – there are no doubt many reasons that have accumulated over the decades to result in this state of affairs. I will say again, however, that it is a deep problem with our culture. Consider these data on how Americans spend their leisure time:
Leisure time on an average day
If you were going to design a society, would you slice the “leisure-time pie” like that, where 3 of every 5 hours of that time was spent watching tv? Only 20 minutes reading, or 17 minutes physically engaged are bad enough. I value liberty as much as anyone, but I would say that if liberty is a rope, we have enough of it to hang ourselves – and that’s what we’re doing. TV has its place, but too much tv is the hobgoblin of modern American living.
I do not want to change the US into another country, but it would be pure vanity (which unfortunately runs rampant in our country) to think that the US couldn’t learn from any other cultures. There is a healthy energy in places where groups of adults, young and old, get together, eat, drink, and socialize, while playing board games. There is a vibrancy; an atmosphere of friendly competition where there is room for myriad tastes, styles, and personalities.
I could wax poetic about the value of board games, but I’ll save that for a different post. Suffice it to say that board games serve as an entertaining way to sharpen one’s wits. Board games enhance us intellectually, emotionally, and socially. It should be obvious that the positives of board-gaming completely outweigh the negatives. Any society that can afford to embrace a tool like board gaming, but fails to, does so at the cost of blunting the intellectual, social, and emotional potential of its citizens.
The very word “games” conveys, to too many Americans, a sense of frivolity that really undermines the very idea that they can be useful. They are inaccurately seen as children’s playthings. That is unfortunate, but it doesn’t have to be the case. If you are already a fan of board games, you already know what they are worth. Your passion, accumulated across all the game-loving country, could be all that’s required for a much needed sea-change in American culture.
Board gamers need to come out of the closet * and realize that there is a hunger for such a worthwhile hobby. Regardless of what a person says, there is a game (or games, more likely) that would suit them perfectly and have them engaged, challenged, and interested, if they only gave it a try. Some people aren’t going to like party games, some won’t like trivia, some won’t like word games, and some really hate strategy games; still, there is a game out there for everyone.
Then again, those who profess to disliking games aren’t even the most important ones out there. There is a vast number of people who would play if they could. Are there any gaming groups out there? Are they accessible? Is there any good reason why, if you like games, you haven’t invited friends over for a game night at your home or local tavern or library? The board gaming hobby is truly a “if you build it, they will come” situation. There are people in your community just hoping for the chance to get out and play. All they need is a reason, and you might be just the one to provide it.
My next post will go over some ideas about how to host a successful, recurring game night. Stay tuned!
* Thanks to Kevin Schlabach of
for coming up with that very apt metaphor, and for inspiring me to get moving on this whole idea of catching the board game wave. Check out his blog for more!

Lumper or Splitter?

(This is a post from my other blog, and it’s a few years old. Still, whattya think?)

How do you categorize board games? Do you divide them into two or three groups based on some basic feature? If so, you’re a “lumper” – you tend to see similarities among things and group them together. A lumper might separate the world of games primarily into board games versus card games, or two-player versus multi-player, or strategy versus luck. If you think that’s too arbitrary and choose a game detail that’s more germane to the game-playing experience and consists of more categories, you are focusing on differences between games, and you’re a “splitter.” A splitter might have several major categories, such as party, strategy, family, trivia, themed, and kids games, for example.

What kind of a game, for example, is Sequence? Is it a card game, or a board game? If you were (or are) in charge of a game store, where would you stock it? Maybe under Family games? Parlor games? lists it as both a family game and as an abstract game. If you own it, where do you keep it? Is there any order to your collection, or do you put them wherever they will fit (Box size and shape might be another way to categorize…).

So what are you, a splitter or a lumper? Many will say they’re neither – and that I’m a “lumper” for imposing such a distinction in the first place. But I didn’t make this up – I just see the same issues that I first became acquainted with as a student of Animal Behavior.

My educational background is in Biology, one subdivision of which is Taxonomics – or in modern parlance, “Cladistics.” Taxonomists and Cladists take on the awesome task of describing the family tree of life; awesome because, among other things, no one knows (nor can they agree on) how many living species there are on the planet (see for a nice discussion:

Scientists can’t agree on how many species there are, because the definition of species is, itself, a difficult one that is still being debated. There are species who look different and live apart, but can still interbreed (African and Asian elephants, for example), and there are species who live in the same geographic area but because of behavioral differences, do not interbreed (e.g., Baltimore Oriole vs Bullock’s Oriole). Some argue that the ability to interbreed makes them the same species, while others (perhaps the majority) say that they must typically interbreed in nature in order to be a species. The debate is fundamental in a semantic sense – depending on the precise definition of a species, the family tree will have a different branching pattern – but it does not undermine the underlying basis for understanding biology and evolution; it merely affects the final details. So the debate goes on.

Back to board games. As a former retailer and a current collector, and perhaps owing to my analytic yet playful mind, I think about this all the time. I now own over 1,050 games, and have to decide how to organize them. Since I host game events, I need to be able to find what I’m looking for, when I need it. There are a variety of ways to do it, and available space has something to do with it, but I still want to have some organizational scheme that is related to what the games actually are.

Alphabetical categorization won’t do. Abalone is in a hexagonal box, about 12″ across, and it would not fit well on top of, or next to, Axis and Allies in its rectangular, long, thick box. And so on. Strictly spatial categorization won’t do, either – I won’t put Uncle Wiggily next to Clue.

Then again, several of my larger categories are spatial. I keep all of the small-boxed card games for ages 12+ in one place, where there is a small shelving area and they won’t bury each other, and all the other small-boxed card games for kids on another stand-alone book shelf. I do put all of the Monopoly-sized games together, because there are so many, and I can make subcategories within them (in my case, I have them arranged by age range – because they do tend to be primarily kids games). I have a long row of 3M and Avalon Hill bookshelf games, arranged by category (war games, word games, abstract strategy games, etc). So a portion of my collection is organized spatially, but the rest is organized by function.

Kids games are in the same area as the large Monopoly-style boxes. Games for older kids and young adults get their own space (much of the abstract strategy is included here), and the remaining categories get their own space, too: knowledge-based games (geography, words, general trivia, music, arts/entertainment, sports, bible), party games, war games, casino-type games. I have two more categories, as well – Antique games get their own space (even though many belong in other categories), and I have one area set up as “featured” games. This is where I put my favorite games (History of the World, Titan: The Arena, Empire Builder, etc.), as well as games that are beautifully done (Wadjet, Palenque, Age of Renaissance, etc.). Most of the Euro-games go here.

But space is limited in just about any house. I was able to build a cabinet and customize it, but now my collection is too big. I want to know, if space wasn’t limited, how would you categorize your games? lists 79 categories, but they also list 44 different game mechanics. Would you use them, or maybe combine some of them to make fewer major categories? lists 9 major categories: Kids, Family, Strategy, Party, 2-Player, Card, Word, and War. This is perhaps most similar to what I have seen in stores, but they also list themes and genres as further types of categorization. list 15 different categories of board games, plus other lists.

Online retailers have the advantage of being able to cross-list games in several categories without confusing customers or intensively training employees. Brick-and-mortar stores, however, pay a premium for space, so they can’t get away with putting a game like Settlers of Catan in each of the sections where it might belong (Strategy, Family, Modular board, City-building, Eurogames, etc).

So my big question really is: Is there a way to categorize board (and card) games so that categories are all-inclusive (every game has a home) and mutually exclusive (no game has more than one home)? I doubt it, but I’m still thinking about it and I would welcome any input, and I imagine the more realistic question is not whether that is possible, but given all the possible ways of splitting and lumping game features, which one makes the most sense, and why?


P.S. I’ll take some pics soon and post them, to show you the way I have categorized my games. I’m pretty proud of the set up because I have also maximized storage and use of space – but when I get new games, my organization sometimes goes out the window!

Old view of game collection…

(this is part of my blog consolidation; this post was created a few years ago, but I will update it soon!)

Left shelf: Antique games (top left), card and dice games (bottom left), Avalon Hill and 3M Bookshelf games (top center and right), Kids games (10 and under; center and right)

Left: Avalon Hill, cont’d, RPG’s, TCG’s, and games for older kids (10 +); Center left: “featured” games, eurogames, high strategy, etc; Center right: Trivia, Music, Geography, Sports, Bible, Ancient classics; Right: Party and Word games

Same as above, from angle; bottom units large enough for over-sized boxes

“Featured” games; most aesthetically pleasing, and many of my favorites

This concludes the tour; thank you for your interest. (what you didn’t see was the small bookshelf with a lot of the smallest kids games, two closets in kids’ rooms each with about 20 definite kids games (cootie, candyland, etc), and a stack of about 15 elsewhere in the room.

These are the pics I took a little less than a year ago of my game collection, including the cabinet I designed specifically for holding all varieties of games. As noted above, they aren’t big enough to hold everything, but it makes enough sense to put all the youngest kids games in their own closets; they’re pulled out less and less in favor of the games in this room.

As I write this, in January of 2011, I own 1,140 games. There are quite a few duplicate titles, and it’s interesting to see how they differ. Some are very different games, such as “Billionaire,” one from Parker Brothers, 1973, and one from Crown and Andrews, 2000.

Some are the same game, published years apart by different companies, such as Yahtzee (Lowe, 1956, and Milton Bradley, 1982). Some are the same game, from the same company, but different editions (with different artwork, fonts, etc), such as Clue, from Parker Brothers (I have 1956, 1972, and 1986).

There are also games with many expansions (Carcassonne, of which I own five) and games with many variations (Scrabble, of which I own ten), and some have expansions and variations, such as Trivial Pursuit (I own 19 titles). I do not include multiple copies of the same edition of a game on the list; I keep the copy that is in better shape, making sure it is complete in terms of pieces and instructions, and then offer the duplicate as a prize for a game night hero. Not all of them are coveted…

I’m not in the financial position to just buy games whenever I feel like it; more than I can estimate have come from garage sales and goodwill stores, but as long as they are complete and in decent shape, they’re worth it. As soon as I acquire a game I check out the components to make sure they are complete and accurate (too often, the game will have pawns or dice from another game! Grrr!), and then add it to my excel spreadsheet/database.

Some games are very hard to find any data on; sometimes, especially on older games, neither the box nor the rules sheets have any dates on them, so I have to research them and, occasionally, estimate the year and/or manufacturer. There are a few that are still mysteries, in fact, and I would welcome any input from readers:

Bible Challenge, Youth Edition: no manufacturer, no year; small red box the size of trivial pursuit expansions. “A card set for use with the original Bible Challenge game” (which was self-published in 1984 by Mr James Babineau). Includes two smaller boxes, one for beginners (“From what country did Ruth come?” “Moab!” what a ridiculously easy question that was!) and one for intermediates (“What is the 5th commandment?” “Honor thy father and mother.”) (Wait, that was intermediate and Moab was beginner? I would suck at this game).

White Hunter: no manufacturer, no year; large, flat box with plain white bottom, primarily green lid, with black and white lettering. “The big game of big game hunting” – “Go on safari for wild beasts of Africa!” The object of the game is for the White Hunter to take 5 of the 12 animals before they escape from the jungle clearing. The board is an odd-shaped grid of squares on a simple jungle-background, and the pieces (one White Hunter, 12 hapless Wild Beasts!) are small tiles, roughly the size of scrabble tiles but thicker. Players spin the spinner to move animals to try to escape, while the hunter tries to kill. What a great way to introduce children (aged 7-14) to killing innocent animals for trophies!

I don’t really have an end goal in mind regarding my collection; at one point it was interesting to see if I could play every game, beginning to end, just once, but that is no longer feasible. I’d love to talk more about the more obscure or interesting games I have come across, such as “An Income of Her Own,” or “Mr. Ree.” But in the mean time, I’m hosting monthly game nights and changing themes so that we have a better chance of playing different games every time. Perhaps some night we’ll have to pull out White Hunter or Youth Bible Challenge, or even An Income of Her Own. We’ll see. If we do, I will try my best to report on it!

Old News: Mind Games 2012

(I am moving posts from another blog over to this one, but this is still relevant!)

I look forward to this weekend every year, and it never disappoints!

Ever since 1991, board game fans belonging to American Mensa have been meeting annually to play the best new board games, judge them, and choose the best five. Those five win the right to affix their packages with the industry-coveted “Mensa Select” Seal of Approval.

I will spend another day talking about the how and why of the Mensa judging and its limitations, and compare the Mensa Select Seal to other such seals, but it’s important to understand up front that all Mind Games after the first few have drawn a pretty even cross-section of gamers, along with their varying preferences. What I mean by that is there are hard-core strategy gamers, laid back party gamers, serious-minded card and dice players, old-fashioned scrabble players, and everything in between, and every member gets an equal vote  as to what the best games are. The result has been a remarkably reliable list of games that, if purchased, would prove a suitable cache for any game shelf – especially a family game shelf.

So without further adieu, Here are the five Mensa Select Winners. Soon I’ll post eight more of the best games I came across this year at Mind Games 2012 in Washington, DC, and then cover the rest:

Mine Shift (MindWare, $19.95): A two-player game suitable for kids AND adults, Mine Shift probably won votes not by wowing judges but by quietly impressing them with its simple goal, simple rules, and wide variety of possibilities (It helps that the sturdy components come in a small box that retails for $20, of course). The game layout consists of parallel mine shafts (rows of three tiles each) connected at each end by another tile; players begin with two stones in a 4th tile at opposite terminals of the mine shafts from one another, and the goal is to be the first to move both stones to the opposing player’s home tile. Players take turns sliding and turning tiles or moving stones within the perimeter of the initial 3 x 3 (plus terminals) grid. It’s that simple, but upon playing it, I wanted to play it again – and that’s always the sign of a good game.

(images from

Iota (Iota, $7.95): If Mine Shaft got votes for being compact and affordable, Iota got those points in spades. It consists of a deck of 64 cards that are 2″ x 2″ – and that’s it! It’s the perfect game to stash in a purse or a glove compartment or anywhere else you might want to have a game ready to go. But just being small and affordable are not enough to win a Mensa Select Seal, of course! Iota takes the best features of the instant classic from 1991, the card game Set, and goes further. Each card has one of three properties: a shape, a color, and a number. On each turn, 2-4 players may lay one to four cards down in a single line and score the total number of points that they lay down, but they must be careful to make “lots” in which cards in a line either share each of the same properties, or differ in each of them (as in the Set card game). Bonuses are scored for laying a fourth card in a line (completing a “lot”), and cards laid in two directions simultaneously are counted twice.

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Tetris Link (Techno Source, GS Schwarz & Co, $24.99): So Tetris is finally a tabletop game. It took long enough, didn’t it? Two to four people can play this game in which they take turns dropping various Tetris-shaped pieces (the “Tetriminos”) into a vertical, hollow, transparent wall that is sectioned into columns (picture Connect 4, except it looks more like a window). As soon as a single player has three pieces connected, three points are earned and each successive piece earns another point, and other players may try to place pieces to prevent it. If a piece is dropped in such a way that a unfillable gap is left, one point is lost; two or more gaps left result in a two point penalty. Play continues until no legal moves remain possible. There is a handy and simple scoring track along the side of the vertical board, too! This was quick and easy to play, and I ended up playing it more than any other during the weekend.

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Coerceo (Coerceo Co, $52.00):  So you say you like your two-player strategy games a bit more hard-core than you’ve seen so far? We have you covered with Coerceo, a game with the unique feature of a playing board that dwindles as the game progresses, but only when the players make it happen. Movement and capture rules are simple, but when one of the hex tiles of which the playing surface is composed is left empty and unsurrounded, it is eliminated from the game, and the board becomes that much smaller. What would be just one more geometrically interesting jump-and-capture game in a long line of such games now stands out as a game that is hard to walk away from, and one for which the loser will ALWAYS want to request a rematch.

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Snake Oil (Snake Oil, LLC, $19.99):  And, finally, a party game – hooray! And what a blast this one is, too.  Players take turns acting as customers (one may be a clown, one a cowboy, one a pirate, and so on), while the others peruse their hands of word cards, choose two to combine into one convincing sounding product, and then proceed to “sell” that product to the customer. In the example below, with the clown as customer a player might want to combine paint with cannon and sell a “paint cannon.” But then the selling has to happen, and that’s up to the players. Although initial card combinations might be funny (when I played, a “married couple” customer was greeted with a “murder knife” as a product), the real fun happens when people try to come up with good reasons why a customer should buy their product. As with any party game, the cast of players will make a difference with this, but even the shy folks will come out of their shells; the cards are excellent props for breaking down those walls.

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So, there you have it! I played each of these games, but only one was officially on my ballot, so I only voted for one of them. Would I have voted for all of them? I don’t know – I kind of doubt it. But check out my other posts when they come. I’ll speak to that then!

Old News: Mind Games winners from 2010

(In an effort to consolidate blogs, I’m moving a few old posts over – but the opinions are still relevant!)


Mensa Mind games was held in San Diego this past weekend. I have been attending since 2000, and it has been one of the only reasons for me to remain in Mensa, until my local group became active about two years ago.

Game manufacturers submit games to Mind Games, where game-loving Mensans spend over 40 hours (Friday to Sunday) and get very little sleep to play them. The games are rated, and each Mensan votes on his or her top seven. The top five games are awarded the coveted Mensa Select sticker to adhere to their games, and many, many shoppers have learned that the sticker means there is a great game underneath.

Here are the top five for 2010:

Dizios (Mindware):

Players alternate adding square heavy cardboard tiles to the ever-increasing tabletop grid. The tiles have 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4 dots in their center, and are decorated with a single or multiple-colored swirling pattern such that each tile edge consists of either one or two colors. Tiles must be laid so that edge colors match exactly, and points awarded are equivalent to the total number of dots in any previously laid tiles (which may of course be from one to four tiles). The tiles were very attractive, which I think had a lot to do with this game winning. My own opinion is that it was a nice little game, but not terribly stimulating – not any more engaging than regular dominoes, at least, because one’s options on each turn are very limited. It is effectively just a matching game, at least initially. Just like dominoes, however, once a player understands which tiles are still not on the table (they are systematically coded in terms of dots and color patterns), one can strategize more. I think this game won because it was a unique take on an old idea, it was visually appealing, and one didn’t have to work hard to understand how to play.

Yikerz (Wiggles 3D):

Up to four players alternate placing tumbled, flat-sided, magnetic, hematite stones onto an arrangement of four pads, with the goal of being the first to place their final stone. The four pads are basically thin mouse pads cut in half diagonally, and can be arranged into different patterns to make the stone placement more or less challenging. The challenge is to place each stone without attracting other stones, or pushing them (via magnetic repulsion) into other stones. Any stones caused to attract have to be picked up into that player’s hand. This game was a surprise, because even after reading my explanation it doesn’t seem like a winner. At first it didn’t look appealing, and the name wasn’t appealing (to me, that is, but I know several others who felt the same way); it just looked kind of gimmicky. But the magnets are strong and when they attract, they move quickly and meet with a sharp snap! One also quickly learns that one can use the magnetic repulsion to move the other, existing magnets out of the way in order to make a spot to place a magnet. This was a pleasant surprise for me.

Anomia (Michael Innes; self-published):

Players each have a single card in front of them, and there is a common draw pile; cards have symbols and categories. On their turn, a player quickly flips a card onto their own pile – if the symbol matches any other player’s symbol a quick face-off ensues in which one has to name something from the other’s category. The first to blurt out an acceptable answer wins the other’s card – revealing a buried card that might precipitate another face-off. Wild cards are played in the middle and show two different symbols, so when any two players have those symbols they also have a face-off.

I think this game won because it blends fast-paced multi-tasking with categorical knowledge, and every player is constantly involved. it certainly was among the loudest and most exciting tables at Mind Games this year.

Forbidden Island (Gamewright):

Players compose a cooperative team of adventurers, racing against time to retrieve four treasures from a sinking island, and then escape before the water rises. Each player takes on a different role, each having a special (but not outrageously powerful) ability, which aids in the three main tasks – getting around the island, “shoring up” the island (undoing the effects of rising water), and moving/claiming treasure. The island itself consists of tiles laid out randomly  in a cross-shaped grid. Some tiles are labeled as places to claim treasure, and some are labeled with pawns, and serve as starting places for that player (pawn colors correspond to the identity and special ability of that player). Players alternate, performing three actions per turn, from this list: Move to an adjacent tile, Shore up a tile that has been flooded (i.e., unflood it), Give a treasure card to another player, or Claim a treasure (use four treasure cards to claim an actual treasure by being on the appropriately labeled tile). After the actions are taken, players draw two treasure cards – one of which might actually be one of three “Waters Rise” cards in the deck. At that point, “Flood Cards” are drawn, revealing which tiles will be flooded. Those tiles are physically inverted, or, if they had already been inverted, they are GONE from the game. Yikes! As the game progresses, water levels only get higher, so more cards are drawn, and hence more tiles flooded, when the Waters Rise cards are drawn. To make matters worse, when the Waters Rise cards is drawn, all the flood cards previously drawn are reshuffled and placed on top of the draw pile, so they are the first to be drawn again.

Word on the Street (Out of the Box):

Players form two teams, and have 30 seconds to name, and spell, something from a given category (as determined by a drawn card). Sounds fun, no?

There is more to it, of course. The board is long and thin, and consists of two, two-lane roads separated by a median. Most letters of the alphabet (no vowels and no J Q, X, or Z) occupy the median in a long column from B to Y. As the words are spelled, one of the spelling team members moves the appropriate letter into the roads from the median, toward the edge of the board. Then the other team does the same, with a new category. The result is a sort of alphabet tug-of-war. When a team manages to use a letter enough to move it off of their side of the board, they win it. The first to win 8 letters, wins!

I expected this to be a winner. It’s exciting, it’s nice to be able to form teams, and it’s especially great for people who are fond of words with repeated consonants…(peppermint, Guggenheim, Mississippi, etc).

Mind Games Report, 2014

It’s the same every year: I’ve been home for over a week now, but somehow I’m still tired.

LAST weekend was Mensa Mind Games 2014. It’s an annual board game marathon that starts on a Friday around noon and ends Sunday morning. It consists of 250-300 game-loving Mensans playing and critiquing new board games in order to vote to award the “Mensa Select Seal.” There is no single type of game that wins, but the games that are entered tend to skew toward the short format, family-friendly kinds (as opposed to, say, complex strategy games). The end result is essentially a fair and rigorously attained endorsement from a few hundred really smart game lovers for a game (five games, actually) with generally broad appeal. The best of BoardGameGeek this is NOT, but it is arguably one of the most valuable endorsements a board game can have because it has a track record of choosing games that stand the test of time and are loved by friends and families of all types. I’m pleased and proud to be a part of that process.

In brief, each Mensan acts as a judge and is given a randomly assigned list of 30 games that they are charged to play, critique, and consider for voting. The critique involves a small form that includes several categories on which to judge the game, as well as an “overall” category that might capture the gestalt of the game. These forms are returned to the game publishers and, very importantly, include room for comments. Mensans take this opportunity to provide the game publishers with any and all sorts of feedback (under the strict admonition that anything other than constructive criticism serves no good purpose and is not welcome). This is where comments about the pace of play, specific problems with rules, artwork, packaging, or whatever are addressed, and I understand that our comments have had impacts on more than a few second editions. Here’s what the green card looks like:

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So without further adieu, here are this year’s five winners (they are awarded in no particular order, so I’ll list them alphabetically):

The Duke (Catalyst Game Labs, 2013; $34.95, 2 players):

In a general way, The Duke is like chess, because it involves pieces with different moves being maneuvered on a simple grid to capture an opponent’s most valuable piece. The grid is smaller, however (6 x 6), the pieces are tiles printed on both sides, and only a few pieces are on the board at the beginning of the game. Remaining pieces are drawn unseen from a cloth bag.



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The game begins with the Duke piece and two of the simpler pieces for each player on their first rank. Each turn a player may do one of three things:  1) Move a troop, 2) Introduce a new troop to the board, or 3) Use an enhanced ability (held by only a few pieces, and available in expansion sets). The pieces are decorated with the symbol and name of the piece, as well as a diagram, completely visible to both players, of the moves the piece is allowed to make. That is partly what is most interesting, but does not make it unique; beginner’s chess pieces exist with movement options printed on their bottoms. But with The Duke, that’s just half of it. After a piece is moved, it must be flipped over – and this is the really unique aspect of the game – to reveal a second, different, diagram. The different moves shown on any piece tend to be either defensive or offensive in nature (involving forward or backward moves).

If a player can move a tile to land on an opposing tile, they capture it. Capture your opponent’s Duke to win! It’s really that simple – and that’s the hallmark of many great games. Simple rules, many options.


Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia (Stonemaier Games, 2013; $59, 2-6 players):

This game generated quite a buzz this year, partly because it is the result of a Kickstarter campaign, in which games and other artistic projects are crowd-funded. The result is a very high quality production with a detailed backstory and a touch of complexity. According to the backstory, you live in a dystopian world and you have workers and recruits at your disposal, and need to use them to gain control over the world. The workers, represented as custom 6-sided dice, are placed on the board to accomplish various functions – primarily resource or commodity acquisition. But in order to keep the workers working they must remain dumb and happy. Separate tracks show how dumb and how happy they are; if they get too smart they “escape,” and if the are not happy enough they won’t “work.” Resources are cashed in for authority tokens, and the first to place their 10 authority tokens wins.



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Euphoria is essentially a resource control and worker-placement game. When a die is brought into play it is rolled, and adds to the cumulative “intelligence” of the workers. If intelligence gets higher than the player’s limit on a scoring track, the highest die is removed. The dice are used to claim resources (stone, brick, gold) or commodities (electricity, stone, fruit, or “bliss” (clouds)); once enough resources/commodities are claimed, dice can be placed to build “markets” for several resources/commodities. Each player holds two “recruit” cards that they can use for benefits throughout the game; one is in play immediately and the other is revealed later. Each player also holds a “moral dilemma” card that can be used once per game to incur another major benefit. An allegiance track on the bottom right of the board represents activity in each commodity type. Players’ recruit cards belong to a particular commodity, and when that commodity progresses to a certain point, all relevant players gain a benefit. This is one interactive feature of the game, and in general many goals are shared so more than one player can benefit from another’s play.  Achievements on many parts of the board can result in authority tokens, which are claimed by placing them onto the board. The first to place all ten, wins!

There are a couple of features worth pointing out, beside the high production value of the game and its components. There are ample quick-check charts (i.e., cheat sheets) that make it easy to keep track of what symbols mean and trade in values and references, and these were invaluable to learning the game quickly on the first try. Another feature is the quantity multiplier board, which is just a small board separated into three fields: 1x, 2x, and 3x. By placing a token in a particular field and applying that multiplier, it was very easy to track multiple pieces in various quantities by using just one or two tokens. This cuts down on the number of pieces as well as the price! Overall, Euphoria is a beautifully done game that offers a lot of interaction, a fair amount of (satisfying) complexity, and a fun time. No wonder it won.


Gravwell (Cryptozoic Entertainment, 2013; 1-4 players, $29.99)

Another simple yet surprisingly fun game with a completely unique idea (at least I have never seen it before): playing pieces (spaceships) have an attraction to each other (gravitation), so proximity to other pieces determines the direction of a pre-chosen move, which is critical because there is only one way out and you don’t want to go a long way in the wrong direction.

Players are represented on the board as spaceships, close to the center of a black hole that would lead to another dimension (the 9th one…although I don’t remember if we’re told what’s so bad about the 9th dimension). Each round begins with each player drawing 3 sets of 2 “fuel cards,” in which the top card is visible and the bottom is not. These cards represent basic elements present in space that are mined as fuel. Each different type of element is worth a different amount of energy, which translates directly to spaces moved on the board. There are two additional types of cards that can be mined – one that repulses and one that attracts nearby craft. Within a round, each turn consists of each player playing a card face down, then turning simultaneously. The cards are resolved alphabetically, and movement direction is determined by proximity of other craft: the player to move will go in the direction of the nearest neighbor (which is exerting a gravitational force), the number of spaces shown on the card they played. If neighbors are equidistant, then the total number of ships on either side determines the direction of movement. There are also two non-player ships in the game, floating out in the middle of the course, that have the same effect as other neighbors. Each round a player can choose to play an “Emergency Stop” card to prevent themselves from being flung to far in the wrong direction.

If I had been told this was a leap-frogging space game, I would not have looked twice. But that’s exactly what it is, and the interaction brought about results in an unpredictability and tension that is immediately satisfied and fun to experience. The leader changes frequently, and one can go from dead last to first place within one or two turns. This is a simple idea done in a simple way, that takes a few minutes to learn how to play, and results in a great time.


Pyramix (Gamewright, 2014; 2-4 players, $23.99):

Gamewright is well known as a producer of relatively simple yet interesting, high production quality games, and this year they earned TWO Mensa Select awards. Pyramix is a pyramid of ancient-egyptian-themed cubes, which vary by color and symbol. Players take turns drawing a cube of their choice from the pyramid, allowing any cubes above it to slide down. The goal is to gain points in each color by having drawn the most ankh cubes in that color.

Within each color, there are ankhs (worth 1 point), ibises (2 pts), and eyes of Horus (3 pts). If a player draws the most red ankhs, they score for the other red cubes as well. There are a few restrictions on drawing: at least two faces of the cube must be visible, the cube may NOT be touching a cobra cube face to face, and a cube may not be drawn if it would expose the base of the pyramid (i.e., cubes on the last row may not be drawn). Once drawing is complete the base row will be intact; any cubes touching cobras face to face are removed and not scored. Players then tally their ankhs, and the leaders in each color gather their respective remaining cubes from the base. Points are tallied as above and a winner is declared.

Pyramix is a game that can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike, and is also ideal for families and mixed company. It’s fun to play partly because it is fun to play with. Who doesn’t enjoy pulling something from a bottom row to watch those above cascade down to replace it? There is something aesthetically satisfying about that, especially knowing the structure is stable enough to maintain its overall shape and symmetry (as opposed to collapsing and going all over the place). Add to that the knowledge that something behind is being uncovered that may or may not be desirable for the player whose turn it is, and the basic elements of a good game are present.


Qwixx (Gamewright, 2012; 2-5 players, $10.99):

The second of Gamewright’s winning games this year, Qwixx is, among other things, small (i.e. portable) and affordable. It is reminiscent of Yahtzee, because each turn the dice are rolled and players have to occupy a box with a particular score. The goal is to cross off as many boxes on the score sheet as possible; the more you cross off, the higher your score.

There are four colored dice, corresponding to four colored rows on the scoresheet, and two white dice. The rows represent possible dice rolls and – this is IMPORTANT – red and yellow rows ascend from 2 to 12, while green and blue descend from 12 to 2. Players alternate rolling the dice, but every player must use the roll to score. Non-rolling players choose one colored die and combine it with one of the white dice to get a score for that color, and x-off that spot on their sheet. The rolling player does the same with a colored die and a white die, but they ALSO combine the white dice and must cross that score off on the color of their choice on their sheet. So far, so good, so easy – but here’s the thing. Once a box is crossed off, no others to the left of that box may be crossed off. So, for example, if the first roll is a blue 7 and a two white 3’s, the blue score would be 10, so the blue 10 on the sheet would be marked off. If, next turn, the same or higher is rolled (say, a blue 12), it may not be taken. Every score to the left of a taken box is unavailable for the rest of the game.

Once a row is completed, it becomes “locked.” Once two rows are locked by any player, the round is over and points are tallied. If a dice roll ever results in the inability to score, one of the four “-5” boxes in the lower right corner is marked, and a -5 point penalty will be added at the end. The round also ends if a player fills these four boxes. The scoring is listed at the bottom: if 11 boxes in a row are filled in, 66 points are taken, while 1 box earns just one point . Note that there is a score given for 12 boxes, but since the range of dice rolls is 2-11, 12 boxes is not a possible score; I didn’t check the rules to see if that was addressed…

Overall, Qwixx is a simple and quick game, it’s small, easy to learn, easy to afford, and easy to carry. It won’t blow you away with excitement, but the play value is very high, especially given the production value. Definitely a good game for kids and for families.


So that’s it! Stay tuned for a report on games I liked that didn’t make the top five – coming soon!!!



If your favorite kind of game night is loud, fast, rambunctious, and full of laughs, then Pit (1904, Parker Brothers and others; $12; 3 to 8 players) is a must have. Read that year again: 1904. Pit has been around for over 100 years, and has changed only in the slightest ways – it is essentially the same game that was played by Americans when Teddy Roosevelt was President, and it is just raucous fun.


The premise of the game is that players act as commodities traders on the floor of the commodities market, and actively trade cards in order to “corner” the market in one of the commodities. In actuality, each player starts each round holding 9 (or 10) cards. The cards consist of 8 different suits, which are currently corn, coffee, oats, soybeans, wheat, sugar, oranges, and barley. There are 9 cards of each suit in the deck, and the goal of each player is to trade cards in order to obtain the 9 cards of a chosen commodity. Trading is accomplished (and this is the fun part) by choosing one, two, or three cards of a single type of commodity, showing them face down, and shouting out the number of cards to trade – in the hopes that another player will want to trade for that same number of cards. The swap is made face-down by the two players, who each then look to see if they have gotten the cards they were hoping for. After a short while, one player will manage to trade for all 9 of a certain commodity, at which time they yell “Corner (commodity)”, and the round ends. In the standard game, there is a “Corner” card that is claimed by the winner. In the deluxe version, there is a hand bell that is rung to signal the end of the round. Each commodity is worth a different number of points, so the winner of the round gains the points listed on that commodity. Play is supposed to continue to 500, which is more difficult when there are a lot of players.


There are two cards that are NOT commodity cards, but represent the market itself: the Bull card, and the Bear card. The Bull represents a strong market, and can be used by any player to substitute for any single commodity card (thus it would take 8 commodity cards plus the Bull to corner the market). The Bear represents a weak market, and it is an obstacle to cornering a market because the holder of the Bear card may NOT claim a cornered commodity; they must instead trade away the Bear card, even if the other 9 cards they hold are the same. When the Bear and Bull cards are used, each round two players will receive 10 cards. As noted, the Bear prevents a corner, but the Bull allows a corner with 8 cards. However, if a player manages to get all 9 cards of a commodity as well as the Bull, they get double points. But if a player is holding either or both of the Bear and Bull cards when someone else corners the market, then they count against that player. These cards can be traded singly or in combination with another single commodity.

Pit is simple and fun, and as such it’s perfect for either family or friends. Wherever people get together and have no problem letting their hair down and laughing and shouting at each other, Pit is a perfect choice. It’s a good icebreaker game as well, as it immediately lowers inhibitions and demands engagement, but always in a positive way. If I had to guess I’d say I expect to see it around in the year 2104.