Monopoly lasts forever. Candy Land is boring, slides and ladders preach, the game of life is unsettling in its effects. Even if parents are looking for off-screen entertainment during the vacation, the prospect of a family game night can make them desperate.
Some good news: We are entering a 24-karat age of tabletop gaming, an amusement renaissance with thousands of board games released each year in a dizzying array of stories, strategies, and designs. How do you choose a game that will delight the youngest players without boring the older ones silly?
"You need a game that speaks to everyone. And that's not easy," said Erik Arneson, author of How to Host a Game Night. But it's not impossible either. Most kids tend to play games pretty quickly learning. Starting with basic versions can prepare you for more complex versions. First, set the entertainment bar low: everyone plays, nobody cries. Then work on something more absorbent.
If your group includes sore losers and bad winners, try cooperative games, where everyone plays against the game itself. Or, opt for a team-based game where stronger players can help weaker ones. Games with a random element can help, suggested game designer Nick Fortugno. "A game that involves drawing lots of cards from a deck or rolling lots of dice is more forgiving," he said, as winning is more a matter of luck than skill.
Here are some suggestions that take a variety of approaches and mechanisms to get the dice rolling:
ICECOOL is a game that is straightforward enough for the kindergarten set and also keeps adults in suspense. It throws players as class-cutting penguins. Players take turns spinning bobble-headed pieces around the board trying to catch fish while a non-entertaining indoor monitor tries to catch them. "It's a game of manual dexterity and muscle memory," said Jon Freeman, owner of the Brooklyn Strategist, game store and after-school program. "And who doesn't like snapping penguins?"
Ticket to Ride is a perfect introduction to the strategy game style known in Europe since the 1980s and lets players build routes through different cities, countries, continents and eras, depending on the edition chosen. (There are rails and sails too, including oceans.) The mechanics are simple and the design – those little wagons! – is appealing. For younger players, start with Ticket to Ride First Journey, a simpler version that chugs quickly and also teaches some basic geography. It adapts wonderfully to the team play.
In this exquisitely designed, climate change cooperative game, players compete against the game and save valuable artifacts when an island sinks into the sea. Can you make it to your helicopter in time? "It's very exciting," said Arneson. The game isn't too complicated and players can help each other out when they face the water level. Another plus: you can manipulate the game for a more difficult or easier game. If you can't stop saving artifacts, the maker has released Forbidden Desert and Forbidden Sky as well.
Zombie Kidz Evolution
Legacy games are games that change as you play, adding new rules and variations depending on your profit and loss balance. A great example is this cooperative game where students try to protect their school from raiding zombie teachers. The graphics are cheeky, the strategy simple and diabolical, and it's exciting to tear into the covers of the game and discover new rules. Older kids and adults with stronger stomachs can try the best-selling legacy game, Pandemic Legacy.
Card games have many advantages. They're neat, inexpensive, relatively effortless to learn, and easy to store. But if you don't find gin, hearts, poker or bridge particularly adorable, try Sushi Go! Players get points by matching various ridiculously sweet sushi bites. Mr Fortugno described it as a great game for both amateur and experienced players. "It fits very well between 'I'm just playing around, having a good time' and 'I'm really playing'," he said.
Quit: The game
Families who love puzzle solving and cracking code will appreciate the Exit series, although they may want options on the easier end of the spectrum like The Mysterious Museum or The House of Riddles. One downside: there is no replay value as you will destroy certain components as you play. Families with younger children can try the Charlotte Holmes Adventure Box, an adorable puzzle box with accompanying videos, games, and a tutorial on morris dancing.
Pen and paper
If you'd rather not buy a board game at all, try pen and paper games, which can be designed or easily customized for team play. Charades is an enduring classic, and you can hack Pictionary in no time. There's also celebrity, where players take pieces of paper with the names of the famous people out of a bowl and then try to describe them in a few words for their teammates. Is Peppa Pig a Celebrity? Ask the younger members of your household.