Tell me if this sounds familiar.
Summer is in full swing, you’ve got kids at home, bored out of their minds and expecting you to be line cook, cruise director, and entertainment specialist? My wife and I have 4 kids, ages 8-15, so I feel your pain. Thankfully I have an activity that usually gets my kids off the couch and hanging out with me at the kitchen table for 30-60 minutes. The activity? Board games.
I know what you’re thinking so bear with me a minute. You’ve played Candy Land until you can see Lord Licorice’s sneer in your sleep, and the last time you played Monopoly Jr. you had to hold back from staging a hostile takeover of your daughter’s lemonade stands. But the games I’m suggesting are engaging, innovative, and were actually made in this century. I’ve been playing games regularly with my kids since they were young so I’ve compiled a list of age appropriate games that should cover just about any age range.
On to the games!
Board Games for Kids 5 and Under
Kids as young as 3 and 4 years old are totally capable of playing games. Give them colors, shapes, simple instructions, and let them play. Just don’t worry if they get the rules wrong.
If you’ve been following board games in the past few years you’ve not doubt heard of the smash hit, Spiel des Jahres winning, game Kingdomino. It’s a delightful tile laying game for 2-4 players, with simple rules, and clever, tactical gameplay. In fact the game was so successful that it spawned multiple expansions and stand-alone games, one of which is the charming and also award-winning game Dragomino.
In Dragomino players are dragon riders searching for new dragons. Place double-ended landscape tiles into your personal play area to build out your kingdom. For each connection where landscape tiles match, players choose a dragon egg token of that landscape type. Some tokens have empty shells, while other tokens have baby dragons worth 1 point. After all the landscape tiles have been placed, the player with the most baby dragons wins.
Admittedly Dragomino might be pushing the limits for a 5 year old, but it’s a solid game. Dragomino encourages color and pattern matching, counting, turn order distinction, and even how to manage excitement and disappointment (when turning over empty shell tokens). No one knows your kids better than you, so it’s your call…but maybe you should consider giving this one a shot?
If you know anything about kids’ hobby games, then you might recognize the bright yellow boxes produced by HABA, a popular German game manufacturer. They publish wonderful kids games for all ages, but Castle Knights is one of my favorites.
Castle Knights is a cooperative game in which players race against a timer to stack brightly colored wooden figures like bears, ghosts, castle pieces, and queens; the goal being to match patterns found on a deck of cards. The catch is that players are all cooperatively manipulating a rubber band used to pick up the pieces for stacking. It’s clever, unique, and will have your family laughing as you work together to beat the clock.
Board Games for Kids Ages 5-9
As your kids get older, their capabilities and interests will change and grow. What they once loved is now ignored, and the new will take their place. Introducing new games along the way will keep them engaged and show them that there are games for all ages.
Zombie Kidz Evolution
I’ve played lots of games while writing for Meeple Mountain, and hundreds of those plays have been with my 3 sons. But no game has ever been a more enjoyable experience for the 4 of us than Zombie Kidz Evolution. Don’t let the name turn you off, this game is pure fun; the zombies are merely cartoony versions of their pop-culture selves.
Zombie Kidz Evolution is another cooperative game; one in which players work together to defeat the zombies infesting the local elementary school. Roll a die to see if you place new zombies onto the board, move your character, and hopefully take out a zombie or two; that’s it. Games are 5-10 minutes long and you can play 2 or 3 of them in a half hour.
The appeal comes from the “legacy” aspect of the game (a gaming term which indicates that the game itself morphs over time). Each time you win a game you and the kids get to add stickers to your very own Zombie Hunters’ Guide. And for each 5 stickers you place players get to open a sealed envelope that permanently alters the game. As the games progress stickers cover pages in the rulebook, characters receive special powers, and the zombies become more difficult to beat. Zombie Kidz Evolution is easily one of my favorite games of the past few years, especially since older kids will enjoy it as well. If you like this one, be on the lookout for Zombie Teenz Evolution, the next installment in the series.
Board Games for Kids Ages 9-12
I worked at a day care center for 5 years in my early 20s, and the 9-12 year olds were always my favorite. Old enough to be capable of just about anything, young enough to not be arrogant about it. A perfect age to start introducing them to more challenging board games.
Unlock! Adventure Games
My kids love puzzles and mysteries, so when I introduced them to the Unlock! Adventure series of games, they were hooked. For those not familiar with this line, the Unlock! games are a deck of about 100 cards that feature various types of puzzles that must be solved by combining cards in various ways. The games use a smartphone app to help players interact with the world in the game. A card with a blue number is added to a card with a red number to get another number. Find that card in the deck and flip it over to keep moving forward in the story.
The Unlock! series is unique, innovative, inexpensive, and at last count there were over 20 distinct stories to explore. Some of our favorites have been the Star Wars set, with 3 adventures set in everyone’s favorite sci-fi world, and the Exotic Adventure set with Scheherazade and T-Rexes. The designers of the Unlock! series have done a great job scaling the difficulty (from an easy 1 star to a challenging 3 stars) which means that this isn’t just a game for kids.
One of the things I love about this series is that it’s “non-destructive”. Unlike the more well known EXIT Games, which require players to rip, tear, cut, or otherwise damage the game, the Unlock series goes back in the box nicely and can be replayed if so desired. You can also let your kids play it with their friends after you’re finished with it! Now you’re recruiting new gamers as well!
Sparkle Kitty is a wordplay game in which players are princesses. That’s right, each player starts the game by “picking their princess” from a dozen super-cool gals. Then over the course of the game each princess is trying to save themselves from a tall tower of cards by casting “spells”.
Sparkle Kitty behaves a lot like UNO; play a card matching either the color or the symbol of one of the cards in the middle of the table. But as you play the card you have to say “the spell”. If you play a “DUCKY” card next to a “RIOT” card then you have to say “DUCKY RIOT” or else you have to draw a card. It’s simple, silly, plays up to 8, and it’s a blast for all ages.
Board Games for Kids Ages 12 and Up
Oh the tweens. We have one teenager, and a 12 year old. While they’re only 2-3 years apart, they’re worlds different in behavior. Finding games that can appeal to a 12 year old and a 15 year old is tough.
The board gaming world has recently been taken by storm, a “Roll and write” storm that is. These modern alternatives to the venerable Yahtzee are everywhere. From the abstract Encore! or Ganz schön clever to the thematic Fleet Dice Game or Cartographers, gamers all over the world are getting their dice cups ready. But there’s a related type of game commonly called “Flip and Fill” that’s also becoming more popular. Instead of dice, which are forever random, these games use a deck of cards to enforce a bit more consistency in the game play. Popular games include Welcome To…, and Silver & Gold.
And that’s where Metro X comes in. It’s a bit more on the abstract side, but in Metro X players are trying to fill in maps of fictional Japanese metro lines and score the most points over 15 or so short rounds. The game is driven by a deck of cards that feature numbers and a mix of special cards. When a card is flipped over all players select how they want to use that card on their own personal board. For a card with numbers, you simply mark that number of spaces on the train map from the beginning of one of the stations. But watch out as many of the routes overlap with each other and you can’t skip ahead with the use of the special cards.
Metro X is a great way to engage your brain while having fun. Even though the gameplay is easy, there’s some real thought behind which routes to mark off and when. Because the deck of cards is shuffled and reshuffled throughout the game you never know just how each game will play out, which means your teens and preteens will have to think on their feet. The game is short enough to be done in 20 minutes or so, thanks to the simultaneous play, and the personal dry erase player boards are a great touch.
“Party games” are generally not my favorite, especially ones in which the win conditions depend on the judgement of others (I’m looking at you Apples to Apples), so imagine my surprise when I played Just One and absolutely loved it.
Just One is a cooperative word association game in which the team is trying to get one player to guess a word based on clues they’ve written down. Each player writes their clue in secret, then reveals them to the other clue givers before the final reveal to the guessing player. The catch is that any duplicate clues are removed from the lineup. This encourages clue givers to be just vague enough to escape elimination, while still giving enough insight to allow a successful guess.
Just One plays up to 7 players (although you could easily combine adults with younger kids) and play with more people. Kids are surprisingly good at this game. My then 8 year old son gave the clue “government” for the keyword “branch”!
Since I started gaming with my kids I’ve had the joy and privilege of teaching them skills like color and pattern matching, tactics and strategy, how to be a good winner, and how not to be a sore loser. In fact some of my proudest moments come when I lose to my children in a game. Because if that doesn’t prove to you that you’re teaching them well, then what does?