One of the challenges of recent months has been to find ways to help our kids spend a little bit less time immersed in electronic entertainment – whether it be from the TV, internet, DS or Wii. As any parent will know, this is a constant, Sisyphean struggle. But one tactic we’ve come up with (having vainly and naïvely tried to impose some sort of daily time limit on such things) is to have a weekly electronics-free day (in our case, Thursdays) – this (theoretically at least!) includes the TV. The idea is to get on with reading, or creating something or generally doing something with us.
And for that, we try to find games that we can all play together.
I suppose one of the aspects of my own upbringing I’m most grateful for is that we always played family games. And so did Rachel’s family. So it’s not been such a stretch for us to do it with our kids. I guess the main challenge has been to find games that everyone wants to play at the same time (with one aged 13 and one aged 10) – this has proved even more difficult that trying to agree on a DVD to watch as and when we decide to do that. But occasionally we’ve succeeded.
And so to help others thinking on similar lines but unsure where to start, my son Joshua and I have come up with a totally unscientific and subjective little table comparing the games we most often play. Some of the more complex games (like Catan or Ticket to Ride) are relatively expensive (around £30 or so depending on where you buy them) – but then compared to what it costs to take one family of 4 to the cinema in London just once, this actually has to be rather a bargain over time. And they’re much better for general family enjoyment, unless you have one or two members of the family who struggle with not winning all the time!
Most of this is self-explanatory – but what we mean by ‘ease of learning’ is how straightforward it is to master the rules (the lower the score, the more complex the rules); and ‘skill required’ is basically how much of one’s progress depends on one’s own skills and strategizing, as opposed to a matter of luck (like the roll of the dice or the dealing of cards). The higher this score, the more dependent your success is on you.
Here’s a quick lowdown on the games:
- Balderdash – this can be hilarious – a variant of Call My Bluff, everyone contributes definitions, crazy laws or achievements of a named individual etc, and then points variously awarded for the answers getting most votes, or for those who choose the true answer etc. A lot of fun – but it rather depends on the prevailing mood, as well as a high degree of creativity and imagination all round to make it really work.
- Blockus – a strategy game with geometric shapes (the hexagonal version is much better than the square version) – for those who have good spatial and graphic awareness I guess!
- Sequence (above right) – a mix of Rummy with playing cards on a board with 2 or 3 teams (with between 1 and 4 members on each team). It’s actually a really clever game, full of tension as each team tries to block the others from getting 5 tokens in a row. It works really well with lots of people, especially because team members aren’t allowed to communicate with each other, so no one knows what cards each holds.
- Settlers of Catan (right) – Catan has become rather a cult game on both sides of the Atlantic – and lots of friends have really got into it. It is complex and involved, but not off-puttingly so. Everyone is an inhabitant on a mediaeval island on which each must build settlements and cities. The end is often a bit of a damp squib though because winning isjust a matter ofbeing the first to get a certain number of points – and if one gets onto a losing streak (for instance if one can never get hold of the particular resources needed to build a city or roads) then it can get very tedious. But it is absorbing and satisfying once one grasps the general idea.
- Settlers of Catan (Cities and Knights) – This follows exactly the same pattern as the basic settlers, but of the various extensions around, this is definitely the best – and makes the game much more interesting. We definitely prefer playing it with the Knights extension and it is well worth investing in. Our 10-year-old is perhaps not so inclined to play either version, so this often ends up being the 3 of us when she is out for something!
- Smallworld (right) – this had us absorbed all through one Christmas/New Year holiday – not 100 miles away from Catan, but more mythical – a cross between Tolkien and Catan I suppose. Lots of different species doing different things trying to get as many points as possible over a set number of rounds (this gives the game a bit more of a fixed and satisfying shape than Catan) – and one’s fortunes can change for the better ever 2 or 3 rounds, which keeps one’s hopes up as it goes on.
- Sort it out – not really a board game at all, this is more a matter of sorting different lists into their correct order. So it’s a very simple premise. Sounds dull, but is actually more fun than you might think. Especially because the lists are harder to sort than one might expect. A good one to fill in a short space of time (e.g. waiting for people to turn up for Sunday lunch or something!)
- Ticket to Ride (Europe) (right) – this is definitely our favourite. There is a USA version, but the Europe version has improved on its earlier cousin by adding a number of tweaks and complexities. It has various small extensions as well that add to the fun. The idea is to build railway-lines across the continent along various journey routes taken from the cards one gets dealt. There is a lot of tension as various routes criss-cross in the central european areas particularly (with people blocking and hindering others’ progress). But one of the reasons that the game really works is that even if there are setbacks, everyone can always derive some sense of achievement in completing one’s routes, even if it doesn’t mean winning the whole thing. That makes it much more enjoyable for the younger members around the table…