Tsuro: The Game of the Path for All the Family

Tsuro © Calliope Games
Tsuro © Calliope Games

It’s rare to find a truly family-friendly board game, one that everyone from experienced gamers to little kids can get equal entertainment value from. Tsuro is one of those games, easy to explain, quick to play, and easy to adapt for different abilities.

The basic premise of Tsuro is one of the simplest in gaming. Each player is a dragon and by playing tiles from your hand you forge a path around the board. The goal is simple: Stay on the board. The last player to remain on the board having not forced themselves off the edge, or flown into an opponent, wins.

Tsuro Board © Sophie Brown
Tsuro Board © Sophie Brown

Although very simple to explain and play, the game is also deceptively strategic. At first everyone is off in their own parts of the board casually minding their own business. However after only a few turns you find yourself coming upon other players’ tiles and having to think several moves in advance to try to plan out where your tiles will take you in an effort to stay on the board and avoid others.

Although the game doesn’t allow for vindictive play (you must play tiles to move your own dragon, not putting them down in front of others to force them off instead), when players come close together tiles can affect multiple dragons at once allowing for absolute chaos to reign as dragons are sent flying all around.

My husband and I spent several evenings playing the game and I soon learned that my ability to plan ahead and consider where routes will take me is somewhat negligible as I consistently found new and elaborate ways to send my dragon careening off the edge of the board.

When he saw the game (which is technically rated for ages eight and up) my four year old desperately wanted to play with us. The strategic planning aspect of the game was far too advanced for him so I adjusted a few rules in order to create a version that he could play as well.

My Son After Playing Tsuro © Sophie Brown
My Son After Playing Tsuro © Sophie Brown

1. Rather than holding three tile in our hands at once as is standard, I changed to a “next tile from your pile” rule with each player having a stack of tiles in front of them.

This massively reduces the options available on each turn and makes the game easier to follow as you only have to think about the ways that one tile can be played rather than choosing the best option from up to 12 different routes.

2. Because the one tile only rule can result in more incidences of players being forced off the board (some tiles only present one movement option repeated on all four edges), when a player draws a tile which forces him or her off the board or into an opponent, they can swap that tile for the top tile from another player’s stack to give themselves a chance to save themselves for another turn.

My son still needs some help remembering to try out placing his tile in different orientations, and he sometimes thinks it’s funny to play with the intention of trying to crash into you rather than avoiding your dragon, but he absolutely loves playing and asks for “the dragon game” all the time.

It’s one I don’t mind playing too because rather than the often tedious and repetitive games we own that are designed for his age range, Tsuro allows me to actually play something with him that taxes me too.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Mom@Play: 8 Reasons to Play Machine of Death

Machine of Death: The Game of Creative Assassination. Image: Cathe Post
Machine of Death: The Game of Creative Assassination. Image: Cathe Post.

Planning an assassination with your friends is fun. Following through with an assassination plan while making sure the Machine of Death prediction comes through is beyond hilarious. Here are eight reasons you should plan an assassination at your next game night:

1. This card game already has its roots in geek culture, since it is based on a series of short stories which is based on a web comic. The general idea being that there is a machine that takes a little bit of your blood and then predicts with 100-percent certainty how you will die.

The tools we have available for the assassination.  The dice represent the number we have to roll in order for the tool to succeed in its part of the master plan. Image: Cathe Post
The tools we have available for the assassination. The dice represent the number we have to roll in order for the tool to succeed in its part of the master plan. Image: Cathe Post.

2. This is a game of imagination. You are given three tools to form a plan, so that your intended victim dies in the manner they are supposed to. It’s sort of like an invisible Rube Goldberg role-playing event. These tools are unique and can range from imaginary childhood friend to heavy furniture.

This person is going to die by “free samples.” Image: Cathe Post.

3. A sense of irony is not lost in the predicted death methods. Your card might say “old age,” but that could mean you are hit 5 minutes later by some old geezer driving a car.

4. Your assassination team comes up with the details of your target. Take this chance to warm up your brain to be imaginative and silly.

5. As a team of assassins, you are given strange tools to kill your target.

Specialists are earned by completing your assassination and covering up your tracks before time is up. Image: Cathe Post
Specialists are earned by completing your assassination and covering up your tracks before time is up. Image: Cathe Post.

6. The planning stage is not timed, but once you put your plan in motion, you have a time limit to succeed at killing your target. If you succeed and still have time left, you can cover your tracks and earn bonus Specialists that you can save for another assassination.

7. This is a great alternative to other party games, if you are looking for something adult to play other than Cards Against Humanity.

8. The box says it is for ages 14+, but I have played it with kids as young as 7. Parental guidance is advised.

Our team has succeeded on several missions. Image: Cathe Post
Our team has succeeded on several missions. Image: Cathe Post.

Do you want a reason not to play Machine of Death? The only negative I have found so far is the cards aren’t very sturdy. They can’t be shuffled traditionally without bending them.

If this game sounds like something that would interest you, check it out. Machine of Death has a website and is available for around $40 from Amazon and some other sites.

Catching Fire: Seeds of Rebellion The Board Game

Catching Fire © Sophie Brown
Catching Fire © Sophie Brown

I’m always slightly wary of board games that exist purely as movie tie-ins. They often seem to be developed quickly and cheaply to cash in on the film’s popularity rather than having any real effort applied to the game mechanics. This was my fear for Catching Fire: Seeds of Rebellion, the latest board game from the Hunger Games franchise; but there is quite a bit more to this game than first meets the eye.

The first thing you might notice about this game is that the box—and indeed the board, playing pieces, and everything else included—features no artwork from the film franchise. Instead the game builds on the story in the books rather than the glossy Hollywood adaptation. There is absolutely no mention of Katniss, Peeta, or even the Hunger Games themselves in the game’s instructions. Instead the game focuses on the rebellion that is growing in the background of the main story throughout the second installment of the saga.

In Seeds of Rebellion you are cast as a rebel leader attempting to set up secret bases across Panem. Missions are distributed across all twelve districts and you are tasked with collecting the different resources (food, medicine, information, fuel, and people) required for each one. Acquiring all the resources for a mission allows you to complete it and place one of your colored bases in that district. Each mission is worth a number of rebellion points depending on the difficulty—the number of resources required to complete it—and the player with the most points when a mission is completed and cannot be replaced from the stack is the winner.

The board after a game © Sophie Brown
The board after a game © Sophie Brown

Of course there are a number of obstacles standing in your way. Players can send Peacekeepers to different districts, each one increasing the number of resources required to complete nearby missions. Whenever a player completes a mission they draw a new one from the stack to replace it. Each mission is specific to a district and every mission on a district must be completed together. That can mean that as you are about to complete a set of missions, a new one is added to that district forcing you to start collecting something else and stopping you from completing those already there and placing your base.

As well as obstacles that hinder you, the game also provides opportunities for bonus points to be gained. Each player is assigned a number of strategic objectives at the beginning of the game. These are cards that highlight a number of specific districts within Panem; establishing a base in your strategic objective districts awards you bonus points. You can also gain bonus points by becoming an expert in completing certain kinds of missions or by being varied and completing one of every kind of mission.

The game mechanic itself is very simple: collect cards with symbols on that represent the various different resources available, and, once you have enough, discard the cards to complete the missions. However this simplicity could be a huge boost to the game. Not only is it simple enough for non-gamers to pick up and play quickly, the game could also be inserted into a larger campaign game as a mechanic for gathering resources and establishing bases. The tiny board (no really, this is the tiniest board I have ever seen) is again very simplistic with just the district symbols marking out each region, so it could easily be incorporated as a map in a larger RPG or even a LARP game looking for a simple way of committing resources across an area.

It’s great to see a spin-off game whose developers have really thought about what the original story is about and designed the game to become part of that world. Winning Catching Fire: Seeds of Rebellion sets up the rebellion so that the events in the final book of the series, Mockingjay, have a chance at being successful. Lose and the Capitol will probably be victorious; honestly this game really should have been a co-op. There probably isn’t an enormous amount of replay value here so the price could be a little steep but if you’re looking for a game that really ties in well to its fictional universe or need one to play with family on Christmas Day then there are far worse choices.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes. 

‘Scrabble’ Meets the Periodic Table in ‘Elemensus’

Elemensus © Elemensus
Elemensus © Elemensus

Hands up, who has ever tried to make words from the elements on the periodic table? It’s a game that most people who have ever spent time in a science lab have played at some point, and Elemensus has evolved the concept into a full-fledged board game that will have you tearing your hair out trying to think of a word that incorporates the chemical symbol for lead or magnesium.

At first glance Elemensus looks very much like its popular cousin Scrabble, and there are some definite similarities in gameplay. Each player draws a number of tiles then attempts to form them into words to be played on the board, placing them either vertically or horizontally and making them intersect with other words already played.

Continue reading ‘Scrabble’ Meets the Periodic Table in ‘Elemensus’

The Hobbit "Roll to Win Giveaway" Announced

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey  Image: Lego
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Image: Lego

To celebrate the arrival of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, in theaters December 14th, Lego is releasing the first installment of The Hobbit to a board game aisle near you. The board game looks really neat and in true lego fashion, you have to build the dice and board game yourself.

The story of the game revolves around the plot of the movie…with hints from from Gandalf the Grey, you must use your memory skills to find the missing Dwarves who have gotten lost in the Middle Earth. For a harder challenge, you can transform the game while playing.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey hit store shelves on October 1st and to help celebrate its arrival, Lego is hosting The Hobbit “Roll to Win Giveaway” on Lego Games Facebook page.

Starting today, fans have a chance to roll a virtual dice for the chance to win prizes, including a grand prize package featuring the new board game, Lego The Hobbit construction sets, Lego Games’ “Host a Family Game” kit and two movie ticket vouchers to see the movie in theaters. The winner will be announced on December 14th.

Hopefully sometime soon, I will have a chance to check out The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey for myself, but until then, head over to Lego Games’ Facebook page for a chance to win some prizes.

GameChanger….Quick and Fun Family Time

The GameChanger is an accessory that turns the iPad into an interactive board game. Since I have a really big weakness for iPad accessories, I was excited to try it out.

GameChanger main screen
GameChanger main screen

The technical specs are simple:
– Compatible with the original iPad and iPad 2
– The app is free to download
– It’s so easy to set up that my 6 year old son did it

In the box is the GameChanger accessory, four player pieces, and two game boards: The Magic School Bus, Animal Mania.

We plugged my iPad into the GameChanger and my iPad recognized it immediately. I downloaded the app from iTunes and once it was installed we dove right in. The first few screens walk you through a little instruction on board placement and how to play.

The main screen gives you your game choices: Action Games, The Magic School Bus and Animal Mania. We decided to go with The Magic School Bus. The Magic School Bus has 3 different variations of play: Space Science, Earth Science or Human Body and Anatomy. We chose to try out the Earth Science.

The game opens and the iPad suddenly became part of the board. The first thing you do is choose your character and where around the board you are sitting. It recognized when we landed on the right spot and if you landed wrong, the iPad would politely remind you to try again.

Science question

On certain spots it gives you a science question. If you answer the question correctly you get another turn. The questions felt like they got a little harder the longer we played. Total game time took about 20 minutes and we all had a blast.

I discovered by accident that you don’t need the GameChanger to play The Magic School bus. If your child just wants to answer some science questions, the app will run without the added accessory. You can also download other games from within the main screen that don’t require the board pieces. These apps are free and pretty simple to understand. To be honest, my husband and my son found the additional games Kaboom and Duck Duck Goose rather boring. After about 5 minutes I heard them playing  Zelda on the Wii.

GameChanger Board
If you lose your spot, the game will remind you where you were.

Overall it was a nice and simple way to spend some family time. Unlike some board games that take forever, the GameChanger games were quick and to the point. My son has a short attention span and this captured it and retained it very well.

From an adult’s perspective, the game had its moments of “uhh??” It really brings back the days of elementary science and I didn’t realize just how much of that I had forgotten. I found that my son had an easy time with some questions and others even I didn’t know the answer. My only complaint is that the boards do not attach to the GameChanger to keep them in place. A small piece of Velcro on each corner would fix that.

Since some of the questions are pretty tough, I would recommend this game for children in grades 1st thru 6th. To locate your local reseller, visit GameChanger.

“In exchange for my time and efforts in reviewing this product, Identity Games has provided me with a free sample copy. Even though I receive this benefit, I always give an opinion that is 100% mine.”

GeekMom 2011 Holiday Gift Guide #2: Games

Second in our series of 2011 Holiday Gift Guides is one detailing many games that we know and love. Some of them are new, some have been around a while, but all are great fun. This guide encompasses board games, card games, video games, and even an app. Check them out! And please share your favorite games in the comments.

Image: Eternal Revolution

Uncle Chestnut’s Table Gype
$25.00
Games with hand-made pieces and quality parts are sometimes easy to find. Uncle Chestnut’s Table Gype, a board game similar to Chinese checkers but more like Traverse, is a great example. For 2-4 people, players try to get their pieces across the board before their opponents do, jumping pieces along the way. But here’s the trick: The pieces are six-sided cubes. Which side is up determines how the piece will move, and every time it is jumped over, the cube is rolled. A bit of luck is needed, but the game is also highly strategic. You’ll want to play it again and again!

 

Image: The Creativity Hub

Rory’s Story Cubes
$9.99
Crafting a good story is something that is fun to share, but you don’t need to write it down or even to perfect it to enjoy yourself and get a good result. Gather friends or family around, and roll Rory’s Story Cubes (available in both the original dice and the newer Actions variety). Then tell a story out loud based on the images on the dice. The dice come with a few different game ideas, but you can think of your own rules or visit the Story Cubes website for more ideas. The dice are very portable, and can also be used for inspiration with more conventional writing activities.

 

Image: Bent Castle Workshops

Numbers League Card Game
$19.95
Games that teach math are a great way for kids to reinforce their knowledge and have a great time. One math game that will keep you and your kids entertained and wanting to play over and over is Numbers League. Use simple and more advanced arithmetic along with your heroes and superheroes to defeat the villains. Decide whether you’d like to use a sidekick and/or a device, and then add up the values of the heroes to match the numerical value of a villain. Play by yourself or against opponents, and keep your city safe!

 

Image: Bent Castle Software

Numbers League App
$3.99
The Numbers League Card Game also comes in an excellent app representation. This Numbers League version allows for playing against the computer, against human opponents, or a combination thereof. It also has a very large range of game settings and levels. There is no sidekick in this version, but otherwise the gameplay is very similar to the card game. Take this fun math game with you wherever you go!

 

Image: Gamewright

City Square Off
$19.99
A bit like Blokus flipped on its head, City Square Off gives each player their own board on which to build, and each player plays the same piece on each turn. The last person to still be able to place a piece wins. A favorite in our house, this game is great for kids up to adults.

 

Image: Mayfair Games

Tsuro
$29.99
Create a path for your piece to follow while trying to guide other players’ pieces off the board. This game’s very simple concept is a great deal of fun and offers a short game that you can play with kids and grownups of all ages. It is also great for a larger group, since up to eight players can play at once.

 

Image: Amazon.com

Loopz Game
$36.95
Loopz is a skill and action game designed to get players moving. It can be played alone or with up to four participants. Loopz includes seven different games (some with multiple levels) to challenge memory, flexibility, speed, rhythm, reflexes, and more. The loops flash with patterns of color and light, making this engaging fun for players 7 and up.

 

Image: Amazon.com

Xbox 360 Console Kinect
$299.99 to $399.99, or add-on Kinect system for your Xbox 360 $119.99
Xbox 360 250 GB Kinect Bundle Special Edition
Xbox 360 4 GB Console with Kinect
Kinect Sensor Add-on
Kinect technology makes Xbox better than ever. Kinect sensor utilizes full-body tracking to mirror your movements within a game or to control an HD movie with a wave of your hand. No controller necessary. Features built-in WiFi so you can stream movies or television, download games, connect with friends on Facebook, and much more. The video game experience has never been so real. A great gift for kids as well as grandparents.

 

Photo credit: AwkwardFamilyPhotos.com

Awkward Family Photos Game
If your family is feeling the need for something new to play on family game night, or your group of friends has a great sense of humor, this is the game for you. If you’ve ever seen the hilarious website called Awkward Family Photos, and couldn’t stop laughing, this is the game for you. If you need an activity that young kids can play with older folks and everyone has the same chance of ‘winning’, this is the game for you. It’s appropriately called Awkward Family Photos and you can snag your own copy for less than $19. It comes with a two sided board, covered in pictures that have appeared on the website, and players compete to see who can come up with captions and answers to such questions as, ‘What happened right after this picture was taken?’. If you’ve worn out your copy of Apples to Apples, it’s time to break out this new gem.

 

Image: Nicole Wakelin

Star Trek Fleet Captains
$79.99
This brand new board game is sure to appeal to your inner Trekkie. You command a fleet of Federation or Klingon ships, each beautifully modeled with a Clix dial on the base to track shields, weapons, sensors and engines. As you move across a board of random tiles, you’ll explore new planets, settle outposts and, of course, battle the enemy. To help you on your way there are cards with all your favorite characters from Kirk to Picard and, yes, there are even Tribbles wreaking havoc and threatening to sabotage your mission. With a huge assortment of cards and 24 ships to play, it’s never the same game twice.

 

Image: Nicole Wakelin

Mouse Guard RPG
$69.95
If you’ve been looking for a great way to introduce your kids to the world of roleplaying, then the Mouse Guard RPG based on the series of graphic novels published by Archaia should be part of your gift-giving plans this year. Although it was not created specifically for kids but targets adult players, the images and the universe are perfect for children. Set in a forest populated by brave little mice in capes and hats, it provides a rich world with kid-friendly characters your children will be happy to return to again and again. And as your children grow, so can the intricacy and depth of your adventures.

 

Image: Amazon.com

Kinect Sports Season Two
$49.99
This sequel to the bestselling Kinect Sports title for the Kinect on Xbox 360 gives you and your family the chance to match skills at football, skiing, baseball, darts, golf and tennis. You can challenge each other in your living room or friends and family across the country through Xbox Live. Winter may have everyone stuck inside, but this game will have you breaking into a sweat as you try to beat your opponents.

 

IceDice
$17.59
A game system comprised of stacking pyramids instead of playing cards. There are 23 variations of this game, the rules of which can be obtained from Looney Labs. Ice Dice is a fast paced, entertaining way to while away the holidays.

 

Star Fluxx
$12.83
Quite possibly the best of the Fluxx variations offered by Looney Labs. Star Fluxx keeps the premise of the original game while adding in geeky elements, going to the limits of what you can do under copyright law. A card game that can last ten minutes or sixty, it’s a good way to while away some time while digesting Christmas dinner. Not for the easily confused!

 

Image from DNA family games, used with permission.

Bull’s-Eye
$29.95
Is a word game for families, made by a family. It is fast, fun, and educational play. The game is $29.95 on the website and can be found in game stores in the Pacific Northwest.

 

Photo by Cathe Post

Dixit
Under $25
Dixit is a card game similar to Apples to Apples, but with pictures. The artwork is amazing and the game is a lot of fun for kids and adults. The basic game is selling for just under $25 on Amazon.

 

Photo by Cathe Post

Once Upon a Monster
$44.99
If you have a Kinect and children seven and under (maybe even older than seven), this is a great game. The artwork and graphics are top quality and the activities are fun for kids and parents. This is the first Sesame Street game that I actually want to play – even when my kids aren’t around.

 

Image courtesy of Disney Interactive

Disney Universe for Wii
$49.99
Embark on a family-friendly trip through an imaginary robot-run universe that’s gone amok with mischief! Your avatar will attempt to free the costumes of numerous Disney characters and then don those costumes while attempting to save the different areas of the universe. There are blue bots that are helpful, and these black and red bots that are full of mischief and evil. For Disney, this game has some dark elements, but overall, it’s been fun to play with the family. Similar to the Lego video game series, players will use deductive reasoning to solve problems to get through each level, all the while collecting stars and coins, like the Lego games’ stud collections. The Disney franchise connection will make this video game a hit with the younger kids! Multi-player capabilities let teams work together to solve the problems. Rated “Everyone 10+” by the ESRB for cartoon violence and mild crude humor.

 

Image courtesy of Activision

Cabela’s Adventure Camp for Wii
$29.99
Enjoy extreme sports gaming like never before! Cabela’s Adventure Camp takes on several sports with a new twist! Participate in biking, kayaking, wave runner riding, skeet shooting, fishing, archery, hogwhacking, and a very special version of “Rock, Paper, Scissors”…called “Bear, Hunter, Ninja!”. Unlike other sports games, while Player 1 is doing his/her sport, additional players can wreak havoc on the player by laying obstacles! Each of my sons enjoyed downing trees across the river while his brother was biking or kayaking! Rated “Everyone” by the ESRB, but it does contain mild violence.

 

Image courtesy Microsoft

Star Wars Kinect Bundle
$449
This gift won’t quite make it under the Christmas tree. It’s being released on December 31, but I promise you won’t be sorry you put an IOU under the tree and waited the extra couple weeks. If you don’t own an Xbox, this is an excellent, extra geeky way to jump into a way to play video games that require you to get up and move. The Star Wars bundle, aside from coming dressed up as Droids, also gives you the Star Wars Kinect game and an extra large 320 gig hard drive.

 

Image courtesy Amazon.com

Lego Pirates of the Caribbean
$36.99
Lego Star Wars is my favorite video game of all time. You can play it at any age. You don’t have to see the movie first. It encourages cooperation, and you don’t have to be able to read. We’ve enjoyed all the other Lego video games in the series as well. Lego Pirates of the Caribbean adds more complexity to the game and makes money matter more. As with the other games, it parodies scenes from the movies without directly copying them, so it’s not too much of a spoiler to play the game before you watch the movie.

 

Image: http://www.telltalegames.com/

Back To The Future – The Game (Wii and PlayStation 3)
$19.99
This game is the combination of five episodes that had been originally released episode by episode between December 2010 and June 2011 on the Microsoft and Mac operating systems. You play the part of Marty McFly in an adventure to save Doc and then restore the future. It is a game that any fan of the Back to the Future series.

 

Image: Microsoft.com

Kinect Disneyland Adventures
$49.96
This new Kinect game for the xBox 360 allows you do explore Disneyland from the comfort of your own home. You can explore the attractions, meet the characters and complete challenges.

 

Image: Activision

Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure (Nintendo Wii)
$69.99
Take innovative toys and match them with super fun gameplay and you’ve got Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure. An evil villain has frozen the Skylanders and sent them to earth, but with the Skylanders portal, you can send them back and save the Skylands! The single player mode is fun, but the cooperative mode is really something special. Oh, and if you pick this one up, you’re going to want more of the toys. Trust us. Read the full review.

 

Image: Hasbro

Simon Flash
$29.99
Back in the day, Simon was a simple but addictive game. There was something about those glowing lights beckoning you to play. Now Simon has a high-tech update using Hasbro’s Flash technology. You can play the classic mode by following the pattern with the buttons, but you can also shift the cubes around to play four different games. A great update on a classic.

 

Image: Amazon

Bananagrams
$15
Word nerds, rejoice! Bananagrams brings the crossword puzzle to the tabletop. The flexibility of the game means that beginning and advanced spellers can all play together. The compact game comes in a banana-shaped zipper pouch suitable for travel (or hey, Santa – for a stocking stuffer).

 

Image: ThinkFun

Rush Hour Traffic Jam Game
$16
Have you played Rush Hour? And no, we’re not talking the 5 o’clock commute. A strategy puzzle that will have players of all ages contemplating just how to maneuver the gridlock, Rush Hour comes with a set of cars and a deck of cards featuring challenges. In this single player game, the challenges begin simply but progress to more and more difficult layouts. For younger kids, there’s a Rush Hour Jr. Animal lovers will appreciate the Safari Rush Hour version complete with elephants and rhinos. This mind bender has been a favorite in our household for years.

Check out our previous GeekMom Gift Guide: #1: Holiday-Themed Gifts.

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On Kids and Gaming

Mille Bornes Card Game

I spent last weekend tucked away in the New Hampshire White Mountains eating too many s’mores and sleeping in a tent with my family. We made plans for this trip back in April along with two other families and I had been looking forward to it all summer. As the weekend approached, however, the weather started to look less than stellar. My little iPhone ap started showing clouds, and then showers, and then the dreaded thunder and lightning icon. Short of a hurricane (bullet barely dodged) we still planned on going, but with plenty of backup in case we ended up trapped in tents and campers. That backup was enough boardgames to stock a small store.

You see, all three of these families are gamer families. The dads met playing games at our local store and the moms met because of the dads and the kids are friends because of the parents. It’s all about the games. If not for the games, we wouldn’t have had this camping trip at all and we wouldn’t have these wonderful people in our lives.

Our campsite was right along a shallow, slow-moving river and there was a big tree with a rope. The kids were in heaven. First thing every morning they were up and swinging into the river, leaving only when we called them for breakfast. But once breakfast was done, without fail, they asked us to break out the games. The six of them sat there in their soggy swimsuits assembling the pieces of  Lego Heroica and dealing out the cards for Eleminis, which turned out to be the big hit of the weekend.

The kids ranged in age from five to nine so their reading, logic and math skills were completely different. At first glance, you’d think this would be a recipe for gaming disaster, but just the opposite happened. They wanted to play together, so rather than argue about who was playing right or wrong, they teamed up. And they did it in the fairest way possible.

They had an older kid and younger kid on each team so no one was outmatched. If someone got confused, then they explained the rules, or even made their own house rules for handling a situation so that everyone could understand. And it wasn’t just the big kids in charge. They played the game the way the younger kids wanted a few times, letting them decide the rules and just playing along.

That one little Eleminis game was played a hundred different ways last weekend and the kids were happy with every variation. It was the same with Lego Heroica, Mille Bornes, Magic and even Alhambra which they played with the adults. These kids became fast friends, learned how to work together and settled differences all because of the games they played.

We lucked out on the weather right up until the last night when the skies opened, the wind blew and it poured. We had two big canopies covering the picnic tables where we played and kept most of our camping supplies, but the rain blew in sideways and everything got drenched. Everything, except the two games we were playing when the rain began. We grabbed cards and dice and markers and ran full out for the camper where, for the next hour or so, twelve of us crammed in and finished our games. The rest of our gear, well, it’d survive, but the games had to be saved. Soggy plates and napkins are one thing, but soggy playing cards, never!

 

We Can’t Stop Playing City Square Off

City Square Off. Image: Gamewright

As time goes on, I find it more and more difficult to play kid games that are either purely chance, or are so easy that I beat my seven year old son every time. I’ve been making an ever-growing mental list of board games that are both fun and challenging for players of all ages. Here’s my latest addition.

City Square Off is a game somewhat similar to Blokus. Both involve pentomino-style tiles placed competitively. Where City Square Off deviates from Blokus, though, is that each of the two players has their own board, the pieces are placed according to different rules, and there is a bit more chance involved.

Gameplay

Each player takes a board and all the tiles in their color. They then choose a starting city and place it in the middle of their board. The top card in the deck is flipped over and each player places the indicated piece on their board, touching the middle city grid or any of the other pieces. Then the next card is flipped, and another piece placed. Unlike Blokus, pieces in City Square Off need to have an edge of a piece touching other pieces, instead of only touching on corners and in no other way. The last person to still be able to place a piece is the winner. If both players can’t place the piece on the current card, whoever has the largest single contiguous open area left on their board wins.

Who Is it Good For?

City Square Off is as big of a challenge for grownups as it is for kids. Kids can play together, grown-ups can play, or a kid and a grown-up can play. We had this game with us on our recent road trip, and my son talked many a grown-up into playing it with him. They usually asked him to play a second time. The box says the game is for ages 8 and up, but I think that clever 5 year olds will do fine.

Is It Any Good?

An unreserved yes. This game is simple and easy to learn, but is a lot of fun and is challenging, and is different each time you play. The game is quick to play, and is based mostly on strategy with only a bit of luck. If you can only take one game with you somewhere, this is a good one, since it is versatile and good for all ages.

Strategy

Sometimes to win the game you have to gamble a bit about piece placement. Depending on the pieces you have to play during the game, your placement may help you succeed or help you go down in flames of non-glory. You can try to leave places open for as many types of pieces as possible, but eventually you will run out of room. There are more pieces than will fit on the board at once, so you never know ahead of time which subset of pieces will make up the game.

Be Creative

There are plenty of rule variations included in the game, and you can also think up your own. My kids already thought of several, some of which posed a real challenge to their grown-up counterparts. Kids can also just play with the pieces on the board trying to fit them in or trying to make patterns.

City Square Off sells for $19.39 on Amazon.com. It’s a fantastic, quick strategy-ish game for any two people. This is a game that our family keeps bringing out, time and time again.

Note: I received a copy of the game for review purposes.

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GeekMom Holiday Gift Guide #2: Games

Regardless of what holidays you celebrate, the end-of-year festivities are right around the corner. If you choose to purchase gifts online, you need to order then in advance to allow for shipping time, backorders, and comparison shopping. We at GeekMom are here to help you with ideas for anyone on your gift list, from babies to grownups. We’ll be running a series of half a dozen or so posts, sorted by category or age group, with suggested gifts this holiday season. Many of our writers have contributed to our series of gift guides, so the ideas run the gamut from popular bestsellers to more obscure, interesting gifts with which you may not be familiar. Chances are there will be something that appeals to you. Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments below.

Like last week’s Book Gift Guide, this week’s guide has a product category theme, Games. Learn about some of our favorite board games, card games, video games, and other types of games. The holiday season often means an impromptu game night, so I hope our suggestions add some variety to your fun!

Photo: Anomia Press

Anomia
One of this year’s Mensa Select games, this seemingly simple card game will make you laugh and drive you crazy. You’ll also find yourself saying, “Uh.. Um..” a lot. It’s a fast paced game of pattern matching and finding words that fit into categories before your opponent does. It is great fun for many ages and group sizes. Play it full speed for teens and adults, or slow it down to include the kids. The simplicity of game play is appealing, yet it’s unlike anything else out there.

Photo: Gamewright

Rory’s Story Cubes
Rory’s Story Cubes are a set of nine storytelling dice with universal images and themes on them. With a group, roll them and tell a story using all of the dice. On your own, roll them to inspire creative writing. You can also make up your own games! These dice are versatile, and children naturally know what to do with them. Made by The Creativity Hub in Ireland, you can take Rory’s Story Cubes along with you on a trip, to holiday gatherings, or just keep them in your bag for instant inspiration.

Photo: Warner Brothers

Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 Wii game
Great video game, or the greatest video game? If you’re a fan of both Lego and Harry Potter, the answer may very well be the latter. Potterphiles will delight in playing as Harry, Ron, Hermione, and more as they make their way through the story arc of the first four books, facing off against Lord Voldemort in his various forms. The puzzles are challenging without being frustrating, and interacting with Lego Hogwarts is a treat. Also available on Nintendo DS, PS3, and XBox.

Photo: Wiggity Bang Games

Quao
Looking for an inexpensive gift for a teen – or need to recommend a stocking stuffer to Santa? Quao (pronounced “cow”) is a card game from Wiggity Bang. The premise is simple. Be the first to discard all of your cards and you take the round. Win four rounds, and you’re the winner. The game requires players to follow instructions and share their thoughts on a variety of topics. The open-ended questions allow for a new answer each time and while there are no extra points for creativity, there’s plenty of potential for zany answers. Suitable for ages 12 and up. $11.

Photo: Fundex Games

Chronology
Place cards in chronological order to win this history game. Sound simple? If the dates are close together, it can be tricky. Take turns placing new cards in amongst the cards you have already. A wrong answer gives the next person a chance to place the card amongst their cards. The instructions say that the first person who gets five cards in order wins, but that is much too easy. The older version of this game is better, if you can get your hands on it, and it requires you to go to ten cards. This is much more of a challenge. This game is best played by history-loving older kids and adults who are evenly matched.

Photo: Winning Moves

Mille Bornes
Created over 50 years ago in France, this family favorite has you car racing against your opponents, playing distance cards, trying to avoid hazards, saving up remedies just in case, and hiding safeties until you can triumphantly yell, “Coup-Fourré!” and gain extra points. Playing Mille Bornes is a real treat. Give it a try if you have never played.

Photo: MayFair Games

Settlers of Catan
If you tire easily of the same old, same old when it comes to board games, consider Settlers of Catan. In this strategy game, players collect resources that are used to build roads and settlements. Set in the mythical world of Catan, the game has a medieval feel as players barter and trade their resources. But here’s the uber-cool part: Comprised of sturdy cardboard hex shapes that can be arranged in myriad ways, the lay of the land changes every time you play. Three to four people can play the basic game, but for larger crowds or serious Catan fans, expansion packs like Cities and Knights, Seafarers of Catan, and Barbarians and Traders extend the possibilities. Suitable for adults and kids 10 and up. It sells for about $35, making it a great choice for a family gift.

Photo: Hasbro

Scrabble Flash
When you combine Scrabble with some really cool technology, you get Scrabble Flash. Letters appear on the cubes, and when you put them next to one another, they’ll recognize if you’ve made a word and score accordingly. There are different possibilities for solo and group play, and the game is fun for beginning readers through puzzle-addicted adults.

Photo: www.icandoitgames.com

Richard Scarry’s Busytown
I loved Richard Scarry’s books when I was a kid. So, when I found Busytown last year while doing some Christmas shopping, I couldn’t pass it up. This “I Spy” type game focuses on teamwork to get to the picnic at the end of the board before the ants eat all of the food. If you have younger kids and like playing games with them, I recommend picking this game up to put under your tree this year.

Photo: Out of the Box Games

Super Circles
This ultra-portable and fast-paced card game is great for anyone with quick hands. No reading is required (other than the numerals 1 through 4), and is fantastic for multi-generational play. To play, match colored rings on subsequent cards, but they have to be the same color in the same numbered ring. Be fast, though, or someone else will play on the pile and you’ll have to find another card to play! Since everyone is playing at once, you have to be quick because the circles on each card are different. Play your entire hand to win.

Photo: Bananagrams

Bananagrams
Play many word games with Bananagrams, a free-form crossword puzzle game. Arrange letters to create words, then connect words to each other to create a crossword. Once you’ve mastered the basic game play, get Bananagrams! The Official Book, which is filled with challenges and games to play with the Bananagrams tiles. Great for educational use or for any game night.

Photo: Lego Games

Lego Games
In the last year or so, Lego has put out a slew of board games. They are designed to be customizable to make up your own games with the pieces, or just play as the instructions suggest. Some titles include Minotaurus, Creationary, Pirate Code, Ramses Pyramid, Atlantis Treasure, Wild Wool, and even a Lego Hogwarts Game.

Photo: Bent Castle Workshops

Numbers League
What do you get when you combine superheroes and math? Numbers League is a superhero building card game that requires you to do plenty of addition. Perfect for teaching kids their math facts, or for anyone who enjoys math, you mix and match cards to create unique superheroes to defeat villains. The basic set has two levels of play, and you can also get an expansion pack that includes multiplication and decimals.

Photo: Rio Grande Games

Torres
This strategy game is great fun even for people who roll their eyes when someone says, “Let’s play a strategy game!” In the game, you build and inhabit castles to score points, and use special cards to make special plays. There are two levels of play to challenge any newbie or strategy lover alike.

Photo: Rio Grande Games

TransAmerica
Not another train-building game, you say. Well, TransAmerica plays much differently from Ticket to Ride, and is even thought by some to be even more fun. Race against your opponents to connect your cities up with track, while linking track with other players to expand your network.

Photo: Out of the Box Games

Word on the Street
One of this year’s chosen Mensa Select games, this team-based word game will increase your vocabulary while you laugh and play. Pull letters to your side of the street as your opponents pull back. Think of words with rarely used letters, or words that use the same letter multiple times. This fast-paced game can easily be slowed down or made more cooperative to play with children, or you can play Word on the Street Junior which has more tiles and more cooperative rules.

Photo: Out of the Box Games

10 Days in… Games
The entire series of 10 Days in… games teach about world geography. Pick an area of the world, such as the USA, Europe, Asia, Africa, or the Americas, or get one of each and play 20 Days Around the World. For each of the main game versions, game play is very similar, but there are a few differences to each one, in addition to the completely new maps. Regardless of which game you try, you will learn something new about the geography of the world.

Photo: North Star Games

Wits & Wagers
Combining trivia and betting, Wits & Wagers is easy to learn and fun to play. All the trivia questions have numerical answers. Each player answers each question, but then you bet on which answer is the closest to the correct one. You don’t have to know the answers to the questions to win, you just have to bet well.

Stay tuned next week for our third gift guide!

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Geek the Vote: Politics for Kids

The number of American political geeks under age eighteen is predictably low. I mean, why should kids geek out about something they can’t even participate in?

The better question is: Why shouldnt they? Kids aren’t allowed to vote, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of understanding what’s going on around them. Besides, kids are natural debaters, negotiators and compromisers. Politics are right up their alley.

All it takes to nurture budding civics geeks is to frame political events in a context familiar to kids. Take the divide between campaign strategy and governing strategy, for example. We address this with our kids all the time, we just may not be aware of it. In practical terms, it’s the choice between the shiniest toy advertised everywhere on TV and the old favorites that survived our toyboxes long enough to handed down to our kids. It’s figurines versus Legos. Kids are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves whether they want a delicate treasure on their shelf or a reusable component in their adventure kit. In the long run, people don’t always want just one kind or the other, and with toys as in politics, we get some of both in the long run.

After the campaign, there’re winners and losers. A sports analogy would work right now, but comparing politics with sports is overdone. Cooperative board games and roleplaying games work better, anyway. In co-op games and RPGs as in politics, it’s possible for individuals to lose a contest even if their team is victorious overall, and vice versa. Whatever analogy you use, there are two important further lessons here: First, everyone loses sometimes. Second, nobody likes a sore loser. Kids catch on pretty quickly (faster than most politicians, it seems) that they need to accept their losses with at least a modicum of grace if they want to play again later. The same rules apply to winners, actually.

In politics as at home, when the game night victory laps and concession speeches are over, it’s time to do the chores. It’s important work, but there are some in every group who try to put it off until later or shirk it altogether. Parents and voters reserve the right to withhold privileges from those lazybones, and let that be a lesson to the rest. And just like people in families, politicians in DC usually don’t have the option of doing only the easy stuff or the jobs they like best. All the work has to get done – the trash has to go somewhere, debts must be paid, and arguing about it doesn’t help much – but when we work together, everything gets done faster and better.

I’m not sure about politicians, but schoolchildren will probably find this lesson remedial.

Representation is another necessary civics lesson that may be easier for kids to grasp than it is for some politicians. Put simply, “It’s only fair if everyone gets to play”. Even the teams are unimportant if most of the players are locked in a penalty box before the game begins. And if you think kids can’t wrap their heads around what it means when people are sidelined and stereotyped for their gender, race, and sexuality, think again. Kids hate feeling left out, so this is an easy lesson on principle, but teaching it could be complicated by the fact that there are no African-Americans in the next US Senate.

True, a lot about politics is mystifying, even to the adults whose job it is to analyze policy, vote on it, and govern. But the basics are certainly accessible to kids if we’re willing to parse them into contexts children can relate to. Don’t underestimate what they’re able to puzzle-out on their own, either. Even little kids possess a formidable arsenal of analytical capacities, and they automatically look to the experts (that’s us, grown-ups) when they want to understand the rules at play.

So satisfy their natural curiosity; answer their questions and include them in your political conversations. You never know, but a little civics geekery could go a long way. Someday, game night at your house might turn into election night at the white house.