Category Archives: Age Group

Family: Kids and Adults
Little Kids: 3-7
Kids: 7-13
Teens: 12-18
Adults: 18 +
Older adults: 35 +
Seniors: whatever

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,

 

Pit

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.

Uno

Don’t know why it took me so long to write about it – I probably figured everybody already knew about it. If you’re reading a board and card game blog, then you have definitely enjoyed Uno (1971, Mattel and others; $6, 2-10 players) at some point, or some period, or all of, your life. But I’ve crowned it my #1 family game, so it’s just irresponsible to not have it discussed here. Someone might come along who hasn’t played it before, and wonders what the fuss is all about. So here it is: Uno. Uno is basically a commercial version of the traditional card game Crazy 8’s. Players start with seven cards, and go around the table playing one card at a time onto a discard deck. The card must be of the same color (i.e., suit) or rank, or it must be a wild card, in which case the player can name the new color. The goal each round is to be the first player to empty his/her hand – which can only happen after they have ONE (Uno!) card left. The beauty and fun of the game is in the surprise cards. Each color contains a few each of the Skip card, that prevents the next player from taking a turn, the Reverse card, that changes the direction of play, and the Draw Two card that forces the next player to pick up two cards instead of discarding. The ultimate surprise card is the Wild Draw Four Card, which can be played onto anything, and requires the next player to pick up four instead of discarding. That’s all there is to it – it’s not entirely random, but there is no controlling what card you’ll pick up next, or what your neighbors will do to you. The bottom line is that it’s a lot of fun and can be enjoyed by adults, kids, adults and kids, and so on. It comes as a deck in a thin box and is entirely portable, and it’s enjoyed all over the world. It also comes in literally hundreds of variations, and has featured many, many licensed entities. And for a $6 game, there is no reason why every house shouldn’t have an Uno deck.

Old News: Mind Games 2013 (much delayed)

So where were we since I last posted? Mind Games! I’m posting this for the sake of completeness, but it’s still worthwhile info – or at least I hope some folks can find my opinion here useful. The beauty of board games is that, once a game is determined to be a good one, it will always be a good one. (No! Not really – some do get old after a while, but let’s not get hung up on what’s true, or false, or whatever. There are games to discuss!)

The Mind Games winners from 2013 were, in order of how much I liked them: Suburbia, Forbidden Desert, Kulami, Ghooost!, and Kerflip. The first two were really, really my favorites, but the other three were definitely deserving. I’ll treat them one at a time.

Mind Games has been criticized, fairly enough, for not incorporating rules-rich, highly detailed games. This really becomes a problem when manufacturers decide to not submit their games for honest and critical (but constructive) judging by such an eclectic, motivated, intelligent group of board game lovers such as Mensa Mind Games provides. So it was nice to see Suburbia (Bezier Games, 2012; $60) show up, and even nicer to have a chance to play it.

Suburbia is a tile-laying game for 1-4 players (yes, you can play a solitaire version) in which players vie for various tiles with which to add to their sprawling suburban landscape. The tile layout for each player becomes an infrastructure network, consisting of commercial, civic, residential, and industrial tiles, all of which impact and are impacted by the tiles around them and elsewhere on the board. For example, one tile might represent a fine restaurant, which is good…until someone else plays the same tile, thus stealing some of the net income of the first restaurant tile. Or one might have a great reason to build an airport – but be prepared to pay the cost when the only place to “build” it is next to a residential area.

Each turn a player purchases a tile (for as low as $0) and lays it adjacent to one or more on the board. Each tile confers benefits and may also incur costs, as in our examples above, depending on where it is placed. The winner of a game is the player with the greatest population – and to get population, a player has to earn reputation points. And while it’s easy to get reputation points, it’s not wise to do it too fast, because a larger population costs a lot more money each turn – and a player needs money to buy good tiles. And so it goes, a sort of balancing act of keeping the economy in check with the population growth so that neither suffers.

Suburbia has a steep learning curve, unless someone is there to help – which in our case made the curve far more shallow. There are lots of pieces, but the pieces fit together well, and the game concepts are intuitive so they also fit together well. One interesting and very important mechanism is that changes in income or reputation can be instantaneous, one time events (such as gaining several gold coins for building something), or they can be cumulative, in which the per turn rate of income or reputation changes (such as gaining an extra gold coin each turn for building a business). This all adds up to a fun (if intimidating) game, great for any strategy-loving group of gamers, that easily won a top spot. Let’s hope manufacturers learn that Mensa is ready for more of these types of games!

We are seeing more and more cooperative games, in which players act together to try to beat the game.The newest addition to that list is Gamewright’s Forbidden Desert (2013, $25). Much like its predecessor, Forbidden Island, players are randomly assigned a specific function and work together to gather artifacts and then leave before they become victims of the forces of nature. In this case, the explorers are trying to gather and assemble four pieces of a flying ship from the shifting sands of a hostile desert (formed by a collection of tiles). They are battling a hot sun, increasingly nasty sand storms, and a shifting map.

https://i1.wp.com/www.gamewright.com/gamewright/Images/Games/GAMEWRIGHT-415.jpg

(image courtesy of Gamewright.com)

My fear, upon seeing this game, was that it was a cynical attempt by the company to cash in on the very successful Forbidden Island game (itself a former Mind Games winner) by making nominal changes and changing the theme, a-la Parker Brothers/Milton Bradley/Mattel. But that is NOT the case with Forbidden Desert! It is just as thrilling to barely escape an angry desert as it is to escape a howling monsoon, and equally disappointing to succumb to either, and that’s because Forbidden Desert uses a totally different mechanism to introduce storm tiles, as well as the equipment (cards) needed to deal with them (and with the blazing sun!).

The concept is similar enough, and thankfully the excitement is on par with Forbidden Island, but there is also a need on Forbidden Desert to “discover” tiles, dig them out, keep them unburied, and also seek shelter from the hot sun with limited water on hand. There are also more specialists a player can play, so the replay value is that much greater. All of these elements combine to make the game interesting and intense, and since it’s a cooperative game everyone either wins or loses together. It’s really a fun experience and one I’d recommend for a family or any group of 2-5 friends.

Every year it seems that at least one abstract strategy game wins one of the top five spots. I’m not always a fan because they tend to be variations on a theme – which might not make them bad games, but they don’t come across as unique or interesting. This year, however, we chose Kulami (Foxmind, 2013; $30; 2 players), and I am very much on-board with it! (That’s a clever pun, you just don’t know it yet)

Kulami consists of rectangular wooden tiles of varying dimensions, put together randomly to form a single contiguous playing area. Each tile has four or more hollows, laid out in regular increments, so that each tile can hold a certain number of marbles (from four to twelve, I believe).  Players (light or dark) alternate turns by placing a marble in a hollow on one of the tiles – but the placement is dictated by the previously placed piece, such that it must occupy either the same row or column. When a player has claimed a majority of hollows with his/her colored marbles, they win that tile. Bonus points can be gained by completing rows or areas. The object of the game is to claim as many tiles as possible.

Like so many other abstract strategy games, Kulami has a few simple directions, and a game can go in any direction depending on who is playing. But the fact that every starting layout is different is very unique, and coupled with the simplicity of the game’s elements as well as the aesthetics, Kulami is a winner. Any person out there who likes two-player games, or who knows someone who does, should be interested in this game. It’s attractive, it’s easy, and it’s fun.

Ghooost! (Iello, 2013; $20; 2-6 players) is a card game in which players are trying to empty their hands and their “mansions” faster than at least one other person. That is, the last person left holding cards each round, loses that round. It is definitely more interesting than your basic Crazy 8’s, however, and the “spooky” theme makes it more fun: each player is trying to rid their mansion of ghosts and other spooky things.

In Ghooost! the cards are in four suits and range in power from 1-14. Some cards also have special powers that dictate conditions for subsequent cards played. Players start with four cards in hand, and 4-12 cards in their mansions (i.e., laid out in front of them). A round of play consists of two stages, the first of which involves players moving cards between their mansion, their hand, and the common crypt (new card pile) and cemetery (discard pile), in order to prepare their hands for the second stage. Once the crypt is emptied, no one may draw a new card, and the second stage of Ghooost! begins.

During the second stage, players are simply trying to discard their cards into the cemetery – but they must do so by placing higher-ranked cards or sets of cards into the cemetery pile, or else they are forced to pick up the entire cemetery stack (this mechanic holds true for the first stage, too). So spending stage one carefully building a decent hand for stage two is what this game is all about. Plus the cards are fun to look at. What’s not to love? This is another great game for kids and families, but my adult friends and I enjoyed it very much as well.

Kerflip! (Creative Foundry, 2012; $30; 2-4 players) is not just another word game, or should I say not just dehnawomoertrag…(get it?) In Kerflip! players race against each other to claim a word from the same random pile of letter tiles. The letter tiles are double-sided, each side having the same letter, and one side is white while the other is red-orange. Tiles of less used letters (Q, for example) have a number marked on the white side. Points are awarded based on who claimed each letter first, and whether any bonus cards were awarded.

The scoring is where the game is interesting, and it affects even the speed at which words are identified and called. In a round of play, each player chooses a certain amount of tiles randomly and, sight unseen, all players drop all chosen tiles onto the SPECIALLY DESIGNED game board (this is pretty cool, but we’ll get to it later). Players immediately turn all tiles to the white side, and then proceed to visually inspect the letters until they are ready to call out a word that can be spelled using those letters. As soon as each player has called out a unique word, scoring begins. The first player to call a word spells it out as s/he flip each tile to the red-orange side. They are awarded ten points for each letter (so the longer the word, the more points, times ten), and if they succeed in turning over a numbered tile, they get that many bonus cards (which simply award points at the end of the game – but they are held in secret). The second player also flips tiles as they spell out their word, unless a tile has already been flipped, in which case it is only worth five points, and no bonus is awarded. The third and fourth players follow, each getting less and less opportunity to score big. So the game is like a race to do a Jumble puzzle, except there are more letters there than are necessary to form any one word. The key is to be quick but still come up with a decent scoring word – no one will win with “the” and “cat”, but neither will they win if they take too much time looking for a better word.

So what about that “special” game board? It’s designed to sit inside the box in which it came, which also holds the bonus cards very conveniently. But adjacent to and on either side of the bonus cards there are two wells, and when a round is over, that’s where the used tiles go – into the wells! (unused tiles are recycled – back into the bag) The tiles disappear into the wells until the game is over, at which point you remove the board to discover that the tile wells are chutes that send all the tiles into a single black box. Pour the tiles into the bag, put the bag into the box, put the box back into its spot under the board, and you have a really quick, efficient, and elegant clean up. Pretty cool stuff.

Kerflip! is good for ANY word game fans, especially those who think they’re particularly good at anagrams, but also for those who tend to be competitive. It’s that race for the best word that makes for more fun in this game. As with the other games, this one is good for families or friends, but should be enjoyed by peers, or at least with a handicap (my kids wouldn’t stand a chance against ME!!! Mwahhahahahaaaaa).

So that’s it from Mind Games 2013. I’ll be looking forward to Mind Games 2014, which will be in Austin, TX, in April. I really want to promise to write it up as soon as it’s over. In the meantime, I’ll try to add more! Adios!!

Cornerstone

If there is a person in the house who claims “I’m not a game person” (and every house seems to have at least one and often several), watch how they react when they witness a game of Cornerstone or Cornerstone Essential (Good Company Games, 2010). Cornerstone looks like a toy – and it probably could be considered a toy, except it comes with rules for up to four players and victory conditions, which means it’s really a game.

But this game has broader appeal precisely because of its toy-like qualities: it involves building with blocks and then using little people (meeples!) to climb on the resulting tower. How is that not fun?! The whole point of the game is essentially to be the king of the structure by the time it’s completed, or else to be at the highest point when the structure falls down. So it’s building blocks mixed with king-of-the-hill, and I challenge any fuddy-duddy daddy out there who thinks he’s too cool to play a game to ignore this while it’s going on. It can’t happen!

It isn’t a block-building free-for-all, however. Each player takes one of the four colors and two special wooden rings. The four-block neutral starter piece is laid on the table, and players start playing on it – and this is where it gets interesting. Each player has twelve building blocks with which to add to the structure, but the building blocks vary in terms of how many unit blocks they are composed of, and there are two of each. For example, there are two building blocks that consist of one unit block, two that consist of two unit blocks, and so on up to the two that consist of six unit blocks. On each turn the player must roll two dice, and the resulting roll of the two dice give the player two options for which building blocks to choose (doubles allow you to choose any block). If a player rolls a two and a four, for example, that player may choose to build with the 2-block building block or the 4-block building block.

The placement rules are such that, when adding to the structure, one full face of a block must be in contact with at least one other full face of the existing structure, such that the resulting structure retains a checkerboard pattern. In other words, a solid face must go against a clear face, and vice-versa; neither clear faces nor solid faces may touch each other. Once a block is added successfully, the player may (and should, if everything is going well) move his/her meeple to any spot perceived to be advantageous through the upcoming opponent turns. Meeples may move only one block at a time, any distance, but they may only move vertically if there is a single step with which to do it or horizontally if they are adjacent to that block. They may not jump up two or more blocks, and they must be directly below the vacant space they want to occupy (they may not move diagonally across and up in one turn). Meeples also may not move through a block that is occupied by another player.

That is the essence of Cornerstone! The “Essential” version is pretty new on the market (as I write this), and it contains the wooden rings, two of which are held by each player. They each represent a special move: when played, a ring allows a player to either jump two vertical levels instead of one, or else it allows a player to move through another player who may be blocking the path. These do alleviate the occasional problem of being totally sealed off on a ledge, or worse, a cave, thanks to other people’s blocks, but there are only two that each player can use throughout the game.

Although it doesn’t appear to be a game heavy in strategy, some players are extremely deliberate about which die roll they use, and precisely where to put the block they have chosen. If the tower is knocked down, the offending player has lost the game, and, of the other players, the one with the highest meeple at the time wins.

I like this game, and have listed it among my top ten family games because it is fun for members of every demographic. It can be played by kids alone, by teens alone, by adults alone, or else by the whole family at once. And it can be just as fun for each group alone. It’s a safe bet for ANYONE in the family!

 

 
Buy Cornerstone Essential at Amazon!

Imaginiff

For a while, when Facebook was really becoming more well-known, it offered a series of very popular quizzes, such as “What animal are you?”, or “What 80’s band are you?” In these quizzes you would answer a series of questions and then be given an answer that supposedly had something to do with your core identity (Oh please let them say I’m a bear and not a shrew!).

Imaginiff (Buffalo Games, 1998) is the same game, but it was around first and it allows players to lay those assessments on each other instead of wading through a questionnaire. The beauty of Imaginiff, which it shares with certain other great games (Scattergories, Balderdash), is that it has taken a game that people have played for years, given it a definite form and definite rules, and put it in a box for everyone to enjoy.

The key component of the game is the deck of cards that provide a list of six items within a particular category:

The basic mechanism involves players identifying the item on each list that applies to other players. To demonstrate, consider a friend, and answer the question: “If your friend were a cable channel, which one would s/he be?” The options are: Comedy Central, The Playboy Channel, CNN, The Discovery Channel, ESPN, or The Sci-Fi Channel. It’s fun enough to try to place our friends and family members in these categories, but it’s even more fun to talk about our choices, or consider out loud why one is better than the other.

Being able to involve people who aren’t there is one feature that makes this game more interesting, because if there are only 3 or 4 present for a game it provides a satisfyingly easy excuse to talk about other people. And that’s something that already comes naturally to just about everybody.

Points are awarded based on matching answers; each round, one person is chosen, a card is read (in reference to that person), and other players choose the best match. Those players who have the most matching answers are awarded points, and move on the board. The fun, of course, is in considering the answers and then defending them. In my experience it is just as fun to grab the cards and read them aloud, then enjoy the debate. But since the board gives structure and an endpoint to the game, it is still useful.

I consider Imaginiff one of my top 10 family games, because it offers such a playful way to interact with people we know well. It has a nice blend of tension and release, it is (mostly) playable by younger people (as long as you ignore the more difficult categories), and it is conducive to inter-generational play – but it’s also good to get parties started. With the exception of the hardcore strategy gamers, I can’t think of too many game shelves where this game would be out of place.

Buy iMAgiNiff at Amazon!

Opus Dei

If you’re an American or anyone else familiar with Dan Brown’s novels, then please understand that this game is not what you think it is! Players are actually trying to create a “world” populated with the world’s greatest thinkers, as represented on cards.

Opus Dei: Existence After Religion (Dema Games, 2008) is so named because that opening phrase, literally translated, is “Work of God.” It has nothing to do with the catholic “Prelatura del Opus Dei” – the dark figures in at least one of Brown’s novels, although they (the PdOD) are suing for trademark infringement.

So, legal questions aside, what about this game? If you have played Guillotine before, then you know how to play Opus Dei (go to https://gamesbyjohnny.wordpress.com/2009/10/28/guillotine/ if you don’t know it yet); it’s that similar, right down to the stand-up cardboard easel (see pic below). There are three “rounds” of play (each round is one year), most of which involves making changes to the lineup of great thinkers, as well as a lot of player interaction. But I think it’s a mistake to dismiss it as a “rip off,” because the theme, which is so important in Guillotine, is also of critical importance in this game.

In Guillotine, players are rival executioners, vying to collect the heads of nobles and other public figures whose heads (that is, the cards representing their heads) are worth varying points. The nobles are lined up next to the cardboard “guillotine,” and whichever card is next in line is taken by the player whose turn has just ended. Action cards are used during that turn to manipulate the nobles in line, force a card swap with another player, or do any number of other things. There is a dark humor to Guillotine that adds to its play appeal, but Opus Dei turns that on its head.

In Opus Dei, the players are referred to as “zeitgeists” (literally, the “spirit of the time”), who are tasked with creating a world based on reason and rationality, so they vie for scientists and philosophers (whose corresponding cards are worth varying points). Rather than depicted figures losing their heads when they are next in line, these great thinkers are actually going from “potential” existence to “actual” existence by being incorporated into the world of the zeitgeist. Action cards are also played, and have similar effects as those in Guillotine.

Dema Games, on their web site, refer to Opus Dei as the first Atheist card game. To that end, one major feature is that strictly religious figures – referred to as “fools” cards – are worth negative points, so if they end up in a player’s world they take away points. Some figures thus depicted are Ruhollah Khomeini (the Ayatollah), Sun Myung Moon, and Joseph Smith Jr. The creators of the game make it clear that the great thinkers are champions of reason and logic, and enemies of dogma. Thus, to the extent that a great historical figure is dogmatic, they are branded as fools in this game.

So how different is it from Guillotine, really? The game play is almost identical. Players play action cards, try to manipulate other cards to their advantage, and at the end of that round whichever card is nearest the easel goes to that player’s world. Point values for the cards are even identical (except see the Einstein card, above). But the beauty of Opus Dei is that it is using the very popular and fun Guillotine game mechanic as a platform for a far more interesting theme. The cards depict actual philosophers and scientists, as well as some dogmatic “fools” whose cards are worth negative points (The Reverend Moon, L Ron Hubbard, etc).

The cards are very well done, richly illustrated, and good quality; they include a brief sketch of the  famous thinker’s life and ideas, a portrait, that person’s national flag, and, in some cases, further directions that the player must follow upon receiving the card. Some of the action cards have an effect that is global (all players are affected; these cards stand in the easel), some affect only individual players, and some only have an effect during the current turn.

My first impression of this game was probably the same as so many who think that Dan Brown’s novels have oversaturated the market – I was not looking forward to it. But then I saw the cards, and then looked closer at the theme, and I had to give it a try. I’m glad I did! I have always been a “wannabe” philosopher; it’s those big questions in life that really get me going, and I have always been in awe of the great thinkers that have wrestled, with some success, with those questions in order to give the rest of the world direction and progress.

This is just a game, but it’s a lovely little tour through western intellectual history. One might quibble with (or be aghast at) the manufacturer’s value assignment on some thinkers (How does Hegel get 5, when Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau are each only worth 3??!!), and there are very few thinkers from the eastern tradition (Confucius, Laozi, and Zarathustra; also Siddartha Gautama – the Buddha – who is worth 0 points; neither positive nor negative). But the value assignment itself leads to an interesting discussion for those with an opinion on the subject, so that is satisfying as well.

All told, I like this game a lot because I have not seen anything like it before and I love the theme, plus it is a nice introduction to the western intellectual tradition. How can that not be a good thing!? As far as game play goes, it is safe to say that since it duplicates Guillotine, it’s a lot of fun as long as you don’t need the comic humor.

I would recommend it to anyone 15 years old and up – it would be a great gift for any thoughtful kid who is first thinking about the deep questions in life, and his or her place in the great big world or in human history. There are obviously going to be people who see it as a condescending attack on their religious beliefs, so this would not be a welcome gift for them. Too bad, I think, because it’s one of those rare games that can teach interesting facts and make you think without taking away from the fun of the game itself.

Opus Dei is not available at Amazon.com, but it is available at their web site:

http://www.opus-dei.co.uk/directretail.php