Family Game Reviews

by Michael Ridgeway and Vance Fry

Even as the digital revolution sweeps over our lives, many families are rediscovering the simple joys of traditional board games. Unlike most video games, tabletop games encourage family interaction and can teach kids valuable life skills, such as how to follow rules, take turns and get along with others.

While classics like Monopoly and Uno are still popular today, families have plenty of new choices to liven up their game nights. To help you find some of these games, we've put together the following reviews.

Sushi Go! by Gamewright

At first glance, this sushi-themed card game sure looks fun. The playing cards feature adorable, smiley-faced illustrations of dumplings, maki rolls, sashimi and sushi – all packaged in a square tin shaped like a bento box. I had to try this delectable little game, and I’m glad I did: Beyond the Asian-style cuteness is an interesting game experience. The game rules are fairly simple, but there’s enough strategy involved to keep both kids and parents engaged for many rounds of sushi fun.

How to play: To begin the game, players all choose a card from their hand. They then place the chosen card in front of them and simultaneously pass the rest of their hand to the person on the left. They continue choosing cards and passing hands, trying to select cards that score the most points. Once all the cards are taken, the round ends and scores are calculated. After three rounds, the player with the highest score wins.

What works: This game does a good job simulating the feel of a sushi bar, where customers can chose from a selection of Japanese dishes that are paraded by them on a conveyor belt. The gameplay is fast-paced, and the rules are easy to understand. The compact tin box and durable plastic cards also make this a great travel game.

What hurts: There’s not much to complain about with this game, but some families might not enjoy calculating each player’s score after every round.

Age range: 8 and up

Number of players: 2 to 5

Playing time: 30 minutes

Reinforces: strategic thinking

–M.R.

Wink by Blue Orange Games

Who knew that the simple act of winking could be so amusing? This party game is all about trying to slyly wink at certain players without getting caught by others. The blend of tension, suspense and awkward moments makes this game a laugh-out-loud experience.

How to play:  The object is to try to figure out who has which cards in their hand. On your turn, you announce the card you’re looking for, and the player who has that card must try to communicate with you by winking. If you successfully find the owner of the card, then both of you earn points. But if someone spots him winking at you, then that person earns points.

What works: Wink is easy to learn and quick to play. Every player is actively involved in every moment of the game, so you never feel like you’re just waiting for your turn. An ideal game for larger families.

What hurts: Stealthy winking is only amusing for so long, and after repeated playing, the game can begin to feel a little stale. Still, families will probably want to come back to this game from time to time for some hilariously awkward fun.

Age range: 8 and up

Number of players: 4 to 8

Playing time: 20 minutes

–M.R.

Unnatural Selection by R&R Games

The old adage is often true: "You can't judge a book by its cover." And as it turns out, you can't judge a game by its cover, either. The artwork for Unnatural Selection looks like it could have been drawn by an 11-year-old, so I was tempted to dismiss the game altogether. I’m glad I didn’t. Despite my initial skepticism, it has provided lots of fun interaction for my whole family.

How to play: Each playing card contains a real or imaginary creature (chicken, lion, Bigfoot, etc.) and a description (slippery, unlucky, has upset stomach). From the cards in their hand, players choose a creature they think would triumph in a particular situation, such as a potato sack race or pudding wrestling match. Then they use the descriptions on their remaining cards to modify the creatures in amusing ways. Players take turns acting as judge and choosing the winning creature.

What works: The concept of Unnatural Selection is a bit silly, but the game is entertaining nonetheless. The unexpected card combinations — and the silly creatures that are created — lead to plenty of chuckles. The game also contains some words that might be unfamiliar to kids (obnoxious, nefarious, etc.), and for families willing to take a little extra time to explain these words, it creates a wonderful opportunity for vocabulary building.

What hurts: The card illustrations are poorly drawn, making the game feel somewhat childish. But if you can overlook Unnatural Selection’s aesthetic flaws, there’s plenty of fun to be had. Competitive players might also get frustrated with the subjective nature of the judging.

Age range: 8 and up

Number of players: 3 to 10

Playing time: 15 to 30 minutes

Reinforces: critical and creative thinking, vocabulary building

–M.R.

Labyrinth by Ravensburger

Any parent who has played Chutes and Ladders with their children more than once knows how hard it can be to muster enthusiasm for "kid-friendly" games. So when a more challenging game manages to capture their kids’ interest, parents can’t help but feel both relief and gratitude. That’s exactly how I felt when I stumbled upon this intriguing maze game.

How to play: Players must navigate a constantly changing maze of cardboard tiles, trying to collect treasures. The goal is to strategically rearrange the passageways in order to reach their treasures, blocking other players in the process.

What works: The game features enough strategy to challenge parents, while still including enough random chance to give kids the possibility of beating their parents. Because the labyrinth is constantly changing, players’ best-laid plans are often thwarted, forcing them to adjust their strategy. This element encourages nimble thinking and makes each new game fresh and dynamic.

What hurts: While the shifting maze is what makes the game challenging and fun, younger players might get easily frustrated. The game also feels a bit long for younger kids, so shortening the game by dealing fewer cards to each player could help some families. Parents should know that the game includes some mythical/magical characters.

Age range: The box says 7 and up, but slightly older kids will probably feel less frustrated and enjoy it more.

Number of players: 2 to 4

Playing time: 30 to 45 minutes

Reinforces: problem-solving, strategic thinking

–M.R.

The Ladybug Game by Zobmondo Entertainment

If your children are closer in age to Candy Land than they are to Settlers of Catan, The Ladybug Game offers a nice mixture of entertainment and education for children just learning the basic skills involved in board-game play. The game’s mechanics help kids improve skills in counting, solving simple math problems, interpreting symbols and following directions. The game also introduces kids to the concept of short-term sacrifice in the interest of long-term gain.

How to play: Each player represents a ladybug embarking on an adventure in the world outside its garden home. The goal is to make it back home, and players take turns drawing "action" cards that direct them to move forward or backward. Players also collect aphids to use later in the game. (Interesting fact: The Ladybug Game was actually created by a first-grader.)

What works: I enjoyed the emphasis on basic arithmetic. Throughout the game, kids are adding and subtracting, moving forward and backward. The game features an effective visual design, both on the board and in the cards. Pre-readers can interpret symbols and colors so they can play alongside older children with just a little assistance.

What hurts: The Ladybug Game’s design does not offer a lot of variety for repeated playing. But here’s a bonus for parents: Typical game time is about 20 minutes.

Age range: 3-7

Number of players: 2 to 4

Reinforces: counting, basic addition and subtraction, interpreting symbols and following directions

–V.F.

Speedeebee! by Blue Orange Games

I must confess: Spelling games like Scrabble often feel like schoolwork to me. But not Speedeebee — an entertaining, kid-friendly game that rewards quick thinking as much as it does good spelling. In fact, you don't even need to know how to spell entire words to succeed at this game.

How to play: Speedeebee is played with challenge cards and lettered dice. A player reads aloud the challenge on a card, which might read: "Name something red containing this letter (throw a dice of your choice)" or "Name a candy containing none of these letters (throw all four dice)." The player then throws the die or dice to see what letters can or can't be used. The first player to give a correct answer wins the card. (Trust me, it's not as easy as it sounds!)

What works: It's fun! Both of my elementary-age kids showed a knack for coming up with clever answers to the challenges, and some of their more "creative" answers led to lots of genuine laughs. Speedeebee comes in a small portable tin, which makes it a perfect travel game.

What hurts: There's very little "luck" built into this game, so some kids will naturally be more skilled than others and may end up winning most of the time. If you have kids with mismatched language abilities or who hate to lose, this game may lead to more tears than laughs. On the other hand, the short playing time makes defeat a little more bearable.

Age range: 8 and up

Number of players: 2 to 6

Playing time: about 10 minutes

Reinforces: spelling, critical and creative thinking

–M.R.

Pentago by Mindtwister USA

It's not often that you come across a simple, elegant game that also includes a compelling strategic component. But that's exactly what Pentago does. While most children can grasp the rules in a matter of seconds, the game's "mind-twisting" strategy is challenging for both adults and kids.

How to play: Pentago's innovative design is found in its game board, which is divided into four twistable sections. Players take turns placing marbles on the board, trying to get five marbles in a row. On each turn, players can also twist one section of the board 90 degrees, creating a constantly changing game scenario.

What works: The game's simple rules make it enjoyable for nearly all ages. Both of my kids (ages 10 and 11) beat me the first time I played with them. (Of course I had to challenge them to a rematch!) Pentago's compact design comes with a hard-plastic cover, so it's easy to bring along on family road trips.

What hurts: Not much. A single game goes by very quickly, so players may want to try a best-out-of-five match to extend the playing time.

Age range: 6 and up

Number of players: 2

Playing time: 3 to 5 minutes

Reinforces: strategic thinking, mental rotation

–M.R.


Disruptus by Funnybone Toys

This highly original game promises to "open every mind," and it indeed lives up to that rather ambitious claim. Disruptus is based on the practice of "disruptive thinking," which is used by inventors and other creative professionals to spark innovation.

How to play: The game consists of 100 oversized cards that show images of objects. Players look at the images and use one of four "disruptive" approaches to innovate. Players can, for example, add or change one or more elements of the object to improve it. Add candy-flavored bristles to a toothbrush, perhaps? Or they can come up with a completely new use for the object. Use the toothbrush to comb a pet gerbil? In each round, one player serves as judge and decides who has the most innovative idea.

What works: Disruptus is both fun and inspiring. My son wanted to add fireworks to almost everything, which led to plenty of laughs. After 30 minutes of playing this game, our view of everyday objects changed dramatically.

What hurts: Some of the object images were hard to recognize. Also, it would have been nice if the game included more objects that appeal to kids.

Age range: No suggested age is given, but an 8-year-old should be able to easily grasp the rules.

Number of players: 3 or more players (also includes rules for a 1- or 2-player game)

Playing time: depends on how many rounds are played

Reinforces: creativity, innovation

–M.R.


Snake Oil by Out of the Box

Traditional party games seldom work well for family game nights — unless you have a party-sized family. This unique game, however, had my family of four laughing so hard we were all in tears. Based on the notorious snake-oil salesmen of yesteryear, Snake Oil requires players to think up and hawk all kinds of crazy inventions.

How to play: Each player is dealt a hand of six cards, with a single word on each. Players must combine two cards to create a new "product idea" and then give a 30-second sales pitch. Everyone takes turns playing the role of the customer, who decides which pitch gets the thumbs-up.

What works: Lots of fun family interaction. Although there is a scoring system, most players won't care who wins or loses — the fun comes from simply hearing everyone's wacky sales pitches.

What hurts: A few cards have words or concepts that parents may find inappropriate, such as fart, bugger and bouncer. But parents who are willing to remove questionable cards beforehand can still enjoy some good, clean fun.

Age range: The box says 10 and up, but my 9-year-old had no problem picking up the game's simple concept.

Number of players: 3 to 10

Playing time: 20-30 minutes

Reinforces: creativity, communication skills

—M.R.


Spot it! by Blue Orange Games

I remember the good ol' days, when the only reasons I could lose a game to my children were a) I lost intentionally, faking a disappointed "Awww, I didn't win," or b) Dice were involved. Spot it! helps level the playing field. My 6-year-old daughter easily kept up with me, reminding me that my winning days are numbered.

How to play: Spot it! is a recognition game in which players try to find matching images from two cards. Each card has eight different symbols, and any two cards have one, and only one, symbol in common. Players reveal one card, then another, and the player who spots the common symbol claims the first card. Whoever has collected the most cards by the end of the deck wins.

What works: Inexpensive and portable. Every card combination feels fresh, so there are no "Oh, I remember this one" incidents. Variations on the basic game help replay value.

What hurts: The game could benefit from larger-sized cards. Once you have four people sitting around a dinner table trying to study the cards, it can make for some awkward neck-craning.

Age range: The box says 7 and up, but players as young as 5 shouldn't have much trouble.

Number of players: 2 to 8

Playing time: 10-20 minutes

Reinforces: visual perception, matching skills

—V.F.


Forbidden Island by Gamewright

Families who enjoy playing games together no longer have to play against each other. In this unique cooperative game, players are assigned different "abilities" and must work together as a team. The objective: Capture four treasures from an island before it sinks into the ocean. The opponent: the island.

How to play: The action takes place on a grid of cardboard tiles that make up the island. As the island sinks, tiles are removed from the grid. With each turn, players can do several different actions, including moving their game pieces, shoring up the island or capturing a treasure. If the players capture all four treasures and safely escape the island, they win. However, if one of the treasures or players sinks, everyone loses.

What works: An exhilarating pace from start to finish. As soon as the island started to sink, my family and I excitedly schemed the best ways to accomplish our mission while trying to stay alive. Also, players can use different abilities each time, so every game feels like a new experience.

What hurts: Rules are complicated and sometimes cumbersome to follow. Families wanting a more relaxed game time may not enjoy the complexities of Forbidden Island.

Age range: 10 and up

Number of players: 2 to 5

Playing time: 30 minutes

Reinforces: problem-solving, strategic thinking, cooperation

—M.R.


Ticket to Ride by Days of Wonder

This railroad-themed board game offers enough strategy to keep adults fully engaged while being simple enough for tween-age kids to get in on the action.

How to play: By collecting sets of cards, players claim railway routes on a map of the United States. Different routes are worth a different number of points, and big bonus points can be earned by linking several consecutive rail lines into one continuous route.

What works: Unlike many other board games that involve building or developing, Ticket to Ride is easy to set up and has relatively uncomplicated rules. The action starts out a little slow, but the intensity quickly builds as players race to claim railway routes before their opponents do.

What hurts: Because of the elaborate scoring system, you never really know who's winning until final scores have been calculated.

Age range: 8 and up

Number of players: 2 to 5

Playing time: 30-60 minutes

Reinforces: problem-solving, strategic thinking

—M.R.


Copyright © 2013 by Focus on the Family. ThrivingFamily.com.

These reviews are not an endorsement by Focus on the Family but a means of helping parents determine whether a game is appropriate for their family.

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