Tag Archives: board games

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,


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!!!


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.


(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!!