Category Archives: Family Games


blokus box

Blokus (Educational Insights, 2000) is a multiple award winner because it is fun but simple, it can be enjoyed by a wide range of players, and it has tremendous replay value. Many friends list this among their favorite family games.

Blokus consists of a plastic grid and four colors of plastic tiles that exist in a variety of tetris-like multi-unit-square shapes (see pic, below). Players take turns placing their pieces in such a way that the corner of the piece they place must touch a corner of any preexisting piece (the first piece must cover the corner square)…and that is the only rule. When a player can no longer place any pieces on the board, they are finished. Once all players are finished, they count all of the unit squares left in their hand, and lose one point for each. Players who used all their pieces get +15 points, and if they used the single one-square piece they get +5.

blokus board

There are variations, and some households introduce their own special rules, for example handicapping older children or parents by restricting the corner-touch rule. One can even play solitaire by trying to fit all the pieces onto the board.

Because it’s simple and it can accommodate adults and children and mixed-age groups, I recommend it to any group whatsoever – from children 5 and up to senior citizens. It’s especially good for people who like to dive right in without having to learn complicated instructions. The pieces are colorful and easy to manipulate, and the raised grid on the board keeps the game relatively disturbance-free.

If you have no idea what game to buy, especially for youngsters, for a birthday present, or whatever, this game is an easy choice.

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gemlok box

The simplicity of Gemlok (Pywacket, 2007) is what makes it so appealing. It’s as easy as rolling the dice and claiming the highest available spot…except it isn’t quite that simple.

The board, which is conveniently small, is a grid with regularly placed”gem” spots. The gems vary in color, and certain colors are worth certain points; from amethysts (2 pts) to diamonds (9 pts). The goal, simply enough, is to amass the most points by the end of the game. But to get points, a player has to move one of his or her eight men onto the gem and keep it there. And there’s the rub.

gemlok layout

Gemlok is unique in terms of piece movement and the locking-pieces feature. Movement is accomplished by rolling special dice, shown below, that show a variety of pathways. A player must move one man according to each die roll. They are allowed to land on another man unless that man is locked; if they do land on an unlocked man, they are free to move it up to four spaces away. If a player rolls a “gemlok,” they MUST then flip one of their men over (most likely the highest-scoring one) and lock its position. That man may no longer be displaced by another man. Note that, except on the first turn, if “gemlok” is rolled, the player does not have the option of passing; they must choose a man to lock, even if it is not in an optimal spot. Note also that the higher-value spaces are in the middle of the board, and the men begin the game on the perimeter.

gemlok dice

Gemlok is for 2-4 players, may be played in teams, and is advertised, appropriately, for ages 8 and up. It’s a great value for the price and has a ton of replay value. Because of its simplicity, it is a perfect game for someone who isn’t really keen on playing games. It is also great for mixed-age groups.

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transamerica box

For a while I was active on a real time board-gamer’s web site called Bretspielwelt (a great site, which I will discuss in a different post), and my favorite game to play there was Transamerica (Winning Moves, 2002). Transamerica is quick, it’s fun, and every round is loaded with anticipation.

The board is a map of the United states, separated into 5 geographically distinct zones and superimposed with a grid connecting major cities. Each round, each player draws a city card from each zone; a resulting hand might be Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Phoenix, and Seattle. The round consists of players placing short “rail” sections along the grids on the board in order to be the first to connect all five cities, but any rail that is placed may be used by the other players, so a player is constantly confronted with the decision of building a line that they will need versus waiting for another player to do it for them. By the end of each round, it is common for every player to be but one or two lines away from completion – at which point the winner of the round should run and hide until it’s safe.

transamerica layout

At the end of the round, each losing player counts up the minimum number of rails it would take to accomplish their goal, and that is the amount their score is deducted. As soon as a player reaches zero or fewer points, the game is over and the highest score wins.

This is a simple game with some surprising complexity. There is a definite tendency to blame the cards when one draws cities that are very distant from one another (try Boston, Seattle, San Diego, Houston, and Duluth), but in the end the winner is the one who can simply use the most tracks laid by other players. There is an advanced rule that allows you to lay three pieces of your own color rail down, which prevents others from using that section of track and build around it.

transamerica initial plays

I recommend this game for players 8 and up. It’s fine for two players, but the more the merrier!

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Hisss - boxA 4-card snake, who still lacks a tail

Hisss (Gamewright, 2006) is simple to learn, quick, and fun to play!

Easily playable by 4-year-old, fun for kids as old as 10, and parents.

Sole materials are the cardboard cards, featuring snake heads or snake tails in one of six bright colors, or else a snake trunk with different colored edges. Players take turns drawing a card and matching it by color to existing snakes. When a player completes a snake by adding the final tail or head, they win that snake, which is worth the number of cards of which it consists.

There are a few easily mastered tricks, such as linking two pre-existing snakes together; otherwise, the luck of the draw determines the winner – but since a good draw can win a long snake, it is usually the case that nobody is out until very late in the game, and tensions run high!

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