Family game night? Our take on some of the best…

I should probably admit up front that I’m a complete board game fanatic. In fact, board games, card games, anything that involves sitting at a table and playing a game with friends is going to score very well on my personal charts. As a kid, my pals and I would spend countless hours playing games like Monopoly, Stock Market and we just about wore out the tiles in our Rummykub game. Heck, I’ve played Mah Jongg with my Mom and enjoyed it (though I tend to play Chinese rules and she, American)

One of the things I’ve most anticipated with children was when they would be old enough to get into and play games with me. That way I’d always have a gaming partner or two ready to pull out a deck of cards (I frequently have one in my pocket) or board game to enjoy.

Finally, that day is here, and in the last month or two we have gone a bit wild buying games to explore and find out what the kids like the best. We now have a stack that includes Pirates of the Caribbean LIFE, Operation, Horse-opoly, Texas Hold-em chips & cards, Loot, Sequence, Blokus, Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, Clue Jr., a Monopoly card game and our omnipresent cribbage board. The results…

Ah, well, first off, we haven’t yet had a chance to play Sequence or Blokus: we bought those on the strong recommendation of friends and they both look fun, but they’re still in the original shrinkwrap. So they’re somewhat out of the running for favorite game right now. We also haven’t tried Loot yet, so I can’t comment on that card game either.

It’s also helpful for me to note that Linda likes games, but is far less into it than I am, particularly with regards to board games. I have dozens of games in my closet, some of which (like Spices of the World) haven’t been played in over a decade, and while she spent her college years and beyond doing useful stuff, I burned up hundreds of hours sitting around tables with friends, playing games like Diplomacy, Rail Baron, Illuminati, and the like. Never quite got into the Avalon Hill war simulation games, but not from a lack of trying. Just never quite wrapped my head around those 75+ page directions and hexagonal board squares. 🙂
Anyway, keep that in mind as you read the following reviews and you’ll have a better sense of where I’m coming from, at least.

Pirates of the Caribbean LIFE

Pirates of the Caribbean LIFE

Turns out that there’s more than one version of this game, which we now know because we have both the original (first movie) Dead Man’s Chest, and the newest (latest movie) At World’s End. My kids haven’t seen any of these movies and Linda and I haven’t seen the latest, so most of the film references mean nothing to us, but we all really like this variation on an old classic.

Actually, truth be told, the 60’s version of LIFE is far superior to the modern reinvention, and it’s that I’m referring to when I say “old classic”. The currently available version has career cards and all sorts of additional complexity that does nothing to improve gameplay, just make the game easier to mess up when you’re playing with children. One of my very first eBay purchases was a first-generation LIFE board game that we still play.

The two Pirate versions of the game play identically, with only cosmetic differences, except for one thing. Finally, after years and years, Hasbro figured out that if you print the proper board squares underneath the plastic “terrain” the game will still be playable if you break or lose a piece. Many kudos to Hasbro’s game designers for this seemingly trivial but smart improvement to the latest Pirate version of the game. Hopefully it’ll now appear printed on the board of all LIFE game variations.

In the game, you play a character from the movie, Will Turner, Captain Barbarossa, etc., and you travel along the board raiding other players, fighting the Kraken off, buying (or stealing) more capable pirate vessels, and so on. It is great fun and with the additional tweak to the rules of letting players decide not to raid if they prefer, everyone has a good time without too many hurt feelings.



Rather to my surprise, we got this, put in the batteries, separated out the cards, and in a week not one of my children — or their friends — have touched it. It was only $9, but it appears that for our family, at least, it wasn’t a good investment. I haven’t played it myself but having an ultra-steady hand isn’t my strength. If it was, I’d be a surgeon. 🙂

Horseopoly / Horse-opoly game


As a die-hard Monopoly player, I’m generally not too enamored of topical variations (though I should say that I prefer the English Monopoly over the American version, but that’s because it was the version I first played) but since my 10yo daughter A- is, well, obsessed with horses and chinchillas, having a horse-themed Monopoly is proving great fun. She loves the game, and I’m just glad to have a Monopoly title that gets used: most of mine are collecting dust for want of a partner.

Horse-opoly is actually very fun: the Chance and Community Chest decks have become “Horse Sense” and “Horse Play” that include quizzing other players to test their knowledge of breeds, Jail is now a horse trailer (who knew horses hated those trailers so much?), and all the properties are different breeds of horses, with interesting and informative facts on each printed on the back of the cards. Nice artwork and, of course, beautiful horses complete the package and for our family, at least for my 10yo daughter who already goes to riding lessons and loves all things equestrian, it’s a definite winner.

My 7yo son, however, is less interested in the game after playing once. I am not sure if the horse theme just doesn’t resonate (though he likes riding horseback) or if it’s a bit too complicated for him. He loves Pirates of the Caribbean LIFE, however, which is not quite as complicated, but still far from a simple game.

Texas Hold-em / Poker Chips in Case

Texas Hold-em / Poker Chips

Las Vegas, look out! My kids really like playing poker and my 7yo son G- in particular is fascinated with the game and darn good at it! At least once every single day since I taught him five-card draw we pull out a deck and play a few hands, and the addition of chips for betting has added another level to the game too. Great fun, actually, and it’s splendid for counting, ranking, and learning how to have fun even when you don’t win.

To be fair, the chips aren’t worth anything and we simply dole out a different color to each player when we start, but it’s still easy to see who is “winning” with more chips and who is “losing” with less. Our poker game of choice is five-card stud and while I prefer not to have any wild cards because of the probability of hand values, the kids prefer to have twos wild or, sometimes, twos, threes and fours wild. Yesterday we tried “all number cards are wild” but when four kings is trumped by four aces, well, the game kinda breaks down!

A few months ago we were stuck at LAX airport, waiting to fly home after visiting Mexico, and there were a group of five young men waiting to ship off to boot camp with the Air Force. They were sitting on the floor playing poker and G- asked if he could join them. They looked at us and asked if he knew how to play, to which Linda said “oh yeah…”. He then sat down and won the next four out of five hands! His first hand was three aces. The kid’s lucky, I tell ya!



This is for our youngest, K-, who is 3yo and sharp as a tack. She likes the game, but prefers to play Chutes and Ladders, which I prefer too, so that works out well. What I find interesting about Candyland is how the game designers felt that a stack of cards with colors printed on them was a better move indicator than a multisided dice. For example, pull the “green” card and your token advances to the closest green square. Simple, easy, but it doesn’t take long for the cards to be trashed because, well, it’s for little, little kids! I realize that the game was designed before the ability for manufacturers to make cheap, consistent multi-faceted dice, but now it would be easy to have, say, a 12-sided dice and make the game simpler and more random.

Chutes and Ladders / Snakes and Ladders

Chutes and Ladders.

I grew up with English board games, so I still think of this as Snakes and Ladders, truth be told, but I still like the basic gameplay and the idea that if you do “good deeds” you get to advance towards winning the prize (the game) by climbing ladders, and if you do something “naughty” like fish in a pond with a no-fishing sign or kick the cat, you slide down the chute (slide) or snake and end up even further away from the goal.

The game is fun and it’s surprisingly non-deterministic so that even if you’re far ahead of the other players, it’s still quite possible for someone else to pop up a ladder and win the game. K- seems to really like it, and at least half the time she has a sufficiently long attention span that we finish the game. 🙂

Clue Jr.

Clue Jr.

We like Monopoly Jr. (I told you I’ve been trying to get the kids into Monopoly!) so when I saw that there was Clue Jr. I bought it too and so far, it’s not bad, though the gameplay is a bit flawed. I admit up front, however, that I didn’t play Clue for long as a kid before I graduated to more complicated detective board games like 221B Baker Street and Scotland Yard (which, yes, I still have in the closet. Give it a few more years…)

Clue Jr. is all about the process of elimination. Instead of a murder, though, it’s about identifying who stole a piece of the birthday cake, at what time, and with what accompanying drink. Where the gameplay falls down is that you need to examine the clues hidden under each character token to ascertain the time, but one of them has “crumbs” under them and they’re the dastardly cake thief. Once you find out their identity, though, you shouldn’t have to look at the others. There’s a sort of cognitive dissonance or something in how it’s set up and I find it less enjoyable to play, though the older children seem to enjoy it at this juncture.

The other wierdness about this game is that unlike just about every other board game I have played, the characters aren’t tokens: you don’t get to “be” a character and move them around. Any player can move any character on the board, which also really messes up gameplay because everyone wants to unearth a clue on each move, so the same character goes back and forth between two “reveal a clue” spots, rather than having them move around on the board in some sort of quasi-logical fashion.

Express Monopoly Card Game

Express Monopoly Card Game

Not sure when I picked this up, I’ve had it in the closet for years, but finally, finally, I pulled it out of the closet and A- and I have been playing it. It’s fun, and an interesting way to learn how to play trump card games really. The game consists of all the properties as playing cards (including Go, Jail, etc) and a four-piece center off of which you place the cards as you play. Be the first to complete a color group and you get that set and its resultant points. Be the first to earn 50 points (which seems to take two rounds) and you win.

The game takes about ten minutes to play and I imagine that as we get better at it we can shave that down to about five minutes or less, which means that it’ll be a nice way to spend a short time gaming without the complication and mess of a full-size board game. Does it have longevity, though? Probably not, for any but the most die-hard Monopoly fans.

Dominos and Uno

Two more games that we like are dominoes and Uno. In fact, I would say that Uno is a huge hit in our family, whether we’re playing a quick game (well, are there ever quick games of Uno?) with friends or a full-family game that includes our 3yo and magically transforms all cards into color + pattern match cards, without penalties.

Dominoes is another favorite because it’s easy to understand and building the long snake of the domino chain is fun too. Typically we’ll sit on the floor and play dominoes. I was just introduced to “Mexican Train” and have to say that I prefer traditional dominoes at this juncture. A simple, straightforward game that has a lot of history behind it and some wonderful terminology (did you know that the area where you pick up new dominoes if you can’t go is called the “boneyard” and that the dominoes themselves are “bones”?)

And a deck of cards…

While I love all the board games and the variations in play, I have to admit that there’s nothing that beats a deck of cards. For a $2 investment you can entertain yourself and one or two others for hours and hours. Our favorite games include five-card stud poker, gin rummy (G- is very good, A- is learning) and my wife and I have played literally thousands of hands of cribbage. In fact, we just bought a four-player cribbage board so we can spend some time this summer teaching this terrific game to our children too. Stay tuned for that.

How about you, dear reader who has stuck with me through this long essay? What games do you and your family particularly enjoy, and which have ended up as clunkers?

13 comments on “Family game night? Our take on some of the best…

  1. The girls weren’t really into board games when they were little. Monopoly usually dragged on way too long for me. But when they were teens we played cards quite often, usually a game called Hand and Foot. Now we tend to play Mexican Train (Mom and Dad taught us) and we like it a lot.
    Your Sister

  2. We love Uno Attack, but only when the kids aren’t too tired or they cry when they get lots of cards. Sorry is a big hit too, as well as Clue Jr., Game of the States, Go to the Head of the Class and I think the group favorite is Apples To Apples Jr.. My 10 year old sports fan loves Stratomatic Baseball too.

  3. My boy is 4-and-a-half.. we spent the past few days designing games.. he’s waaaay into games.. which is a good thing as I may rival even your game addiction.. you do know about boardgamegeek – dotcom.. right?
    I say start simple.. get them to love rolling dice.. or spinning spinners.. and moving pieces.. but don’t worry about rules.. though, we are playing LIFE (yes.. the real verson .. the “old” one.) He loves mouse trap.. but I try to hide that one.. too much assembly. I assemble.. he watches.. not really any rules there.
    Crazy 8’s seems to be a good learning card game.. that and War.. He can’t hold his cards yet.. so he flops them on the ground.. _My_ challenge is to play Crazy 8’s while seeing his cards and have him win without any official “cheating” ..
    We also found a “Lord of the Rings” game that he likes.. with little disks that get put on the gameboard.. I guess there are a few versions.. but it’s simple but still fun.
    Oh!! The Enchanted Forest is a good one.. kinda a game like “memory” but with pieces that you move and dice.
    Jumanjii (sorry ’bout the spelling).. that was lame with adults.. but fun with adults and kids mixed… honest.
    The main thing I do is buy thrift-store games so you aren’t out mega bucks..
    Oh.. and if you’re into RPGs.. find some “choose your own path” books that aren’t monster related.. like the old west one.. or the castle one.. then after a few bedtime readings you can start your own RPG by giving choices for your made-up bedtime story’s main character.
    Anyway.. keep gaming.. and remember that it’s about fun and not rules.. right?
    Oh.. yup.. Apples to Apples.. excellent game!! get it.

  4. Yay! I’m into board games too – like you – with Illuminati and Scotland Yard and Kill Dr. Lucky and lots of adventure/strategy games likes Puerto Rico, Runebound, Age of Mythology, and Settlers of Catan. I don’t have kids yet but even so one of the things I look forward to about having kids is the opportunity to play more boardgames!
    I agree – Apples to Apples is great. Another game we have that might work well for kids is Bumparena, a Cranium game. There’s a tilted board and a bunch of bumpers and bouncy balls, and you take turns putting the bumpers on the board and hope that when the balls are released tehy will fall to your slots. It can be pretty fast and is also fairly simple, but to really figure out where the balls will go and where is best to put the pieces will exercise their strategy and physics skills.
    Don’t know if your older kids are ready for this but a nice simple classic is Mastermind. Plus you can play as many rounds as you want so it can be a short or longer game.
    Sorry was always a favorite as a kid, as well as LIFE and Payday.
    Another more recent game that’s pretty great is Wordthief. Your oldest at least could play it.
    Thanks for the wonderful review of how these games are going over with your kids! Have fun!

  5. Thanks for the post will definitly come back to read some more, I’m really interrested about learning about attacheemnt parenting
    I’m a nuring, co-sleeping, babywearing, cloth diapering au natrual Mama

  6. Thanks for the tips! Some of my favorite memories from my childhood are playing whist and Clue with my family. I have a dusty original Clue board in the closet, just waiting for my daughter to grow into it! Another perennial favorite in our family: jigsaw puzzles.

  7. Monopoly Junior has just taken over our household! We love playing games together as a family. Until recently our kids were too young to play anything other than games such as memory and dominoes. We’re really enjoying the step up to the more involved games (although I think we’re creating a property tycoon in our son). Thanks for your reviews, it’s nice to see that in the era of Playstation and Nintendo, board games still get a look in!

  8. Awesome post with some of my favourite board games from when I was little:) They are still interesting for the children although they have much bigger choice now!

  9. Sorry is our absolute favorite. We’ve got a wide range of kids (4 of them ranging from 12 to 4) and everyone has a blast. Sometimes it gets a little personal, though. My kids can play some cut throat board games!

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