Sometimes it is hard to tell what kind of legacy you are leaving your kids. What lessons are learned? What habits picked up? My ten year old, for example, says, “What in the…!” with as much frequency as my husband, while our seven year old reads voraciously, never leaving a book sale without a handful of treasures, just like his mum. All three of mine are collectors and hoarders. If we have one toy, the desire is born for the complete set. They remember which things were discarded long ago, and they mourn them. Just as I mourn my collector’s edition X-Files VHS set from 1997 that I have no earthly use for but lament nonetheless.
Recently we had an unplanned, and unprepared for, day at home. While Dad cleaned the kitchen and I worked on a project, what would the munchkins get up to on their own? They are four, seven, and ten now, and with a wide variety of entertainment available to them, are never bored. Which is of course a lie, and they all spent the first twenty minutes of the day asking us what they should do. Eventually the board games came out, and after the second game, my eldest proclaimed it an impromptu board game day in the Pinault house. So what games can a four year old, a seven year old, and a ten year old play together that won’t lead to tears, tantrums, or cries of Heghlu’meH QaQ jajvam (tr.: “It is a good day to die”)?
First up was Shadows in the Forest by ThinkFun. Now, this took a little help from mum to get set up, as the game needs to be played in pitch black and it was 9 in the morning and bright and sunny outside. This game was new to us last Christmas, and was a huge hit that became a fast favorite. The game is played in the dark—complete dark. One player plays against all the other players. This person serves as the traveler, roaming the dark forest with only a lantern to light the way. The other players move around the board as the Shadowlings, mysterious creatures who avoid the light. The traveler moves the light, which casts shadows on the trees, the Shadowlings then move around in the shadows cast by the light. If all the Shadowlings meet together with their masks on at the same hiding place then they win. However if the traveler can “blind” all the Shadowlings with the lantern, then the traveler wins. Once you get used to moving around in the shadows, the game is ridiculously fun. It is rated for ages 8 and up, but of course we ignore that. With a four year old involved, we generally have to adapt game play slightly, though she does pretty well with this one as is. The rules are simple enough for her, the gimmick captivates them all, and it provokes very little in the way of sibling arguments. And the die glows in the dark, which is beyond cool. Up to seven people can play, with one always being the traveler. Though play with two is possible, you really do need at least two Shadowlings to have any kind of fun with it.
Next was the choice of the four year old, and is a game she demands to play almost every day, most days as soon as she is awake: Race to the Treasure by Peaceable Kingdom. This is a co-operative game, in which you are trying to get to the treasure before the Ogres do. You play cards, map out a way to collect the three keys which will unlock the treasure, and make your way down the board. Each Ogre tile drawn gets the Ogre closer to beating you. You have one chance to throw him some Ogre snacks to make him take a step back, but otherwise it’s just a race to the treasure. The rules are simple, and as with the first game, there is no reading involved, so kids of all ages can join in. As my kids get older, they enjoy this game less, but will still happily play it for their little sister. For my part, it is currently my favorite game in the world, because my baby calls the Ogres “Yoghurts” and I never want her corrected! It takes about 20 minutes to play a full game and can be played with multiple players or as a solo game. It’s easily adapted to various kinds of house rules depending on the temperaments of your brood.
For the third game, my seven year old opted to come do crafts with me for a time, while my eldest son humored his little sister with another of her favorites: Animal Upon Animal by Haba. The board in this game is less a board than a wooden crocodile, and it plays more like Jenga than anything else. Each player has two of each wooden animal and, with each roll of the dice, must add an animal to the stack forming on the crocodile’s back. There are consequences for animals that fall off, and the first player to have used up all of their animals wins. This is a very simple but satisfying game for every age. Another game with no words, so accessible to all. Kids enjoy it, parents enjoy it, grandparents enjoy it, and as long as no pieces are thrown it is a fairly peaceful game!
By this time, the four year old was done, and opted to tear tissue paper into pieces and pretend it was snowing instead of continuing with game day. This left the eldest boys to a game of their choosing: Monopoly Gamer: Mario Kart. It is worth noting that we are not big Monopoly players in our house, so my kids have not had much exposure to the original game. This would be much to the chagrin of Great Uncle Nap, who worked at the original factory making Monopoly pieces. However, we are all Mario Kart fans and board game fans, and when two loves marry, you really do have to check it out. I actually find myself preferring this game to regular Monopoly, at least when it comes to playing with my kids. The base game comes with four characters: Mario, Princess Peach, Luigi, and Toad, you can buy extra game pieces separately. We have purchased and misplaced several. You move around the board in traditional Monopoly style, and you purchase “properties” such as Bowser’s Castle and Rainbow Road. You still get to pass Go and go to jail, but you also get to collect coins and drop banana peels. There are no hotels or houses to build; winning this game is dependent on how many races you win. Races are played as each player passes go. At the end, whoever has the highest score wins. As always with Monopoly, there are house rules. My kids don’t wait to pass Go; they have a race every time they finish a turn, which cuts the game time down dramatically. This is a two-to-four-player game, and certainly easier for younger kids to follow than regular Monopoly. If you have a video game junkie on your hands, it’s a neat way to add in some screen-free time within the realm of their interest. Also, since the rules are quite different from the original game, our four year old does actually manage to play this game on occasion, with some guidance from big brother.
Shockingly, no one argued enough during any of these games to need parental intervention. It was absolutely wonderful to hit lunch time, with them having entertained themselves screen-free all morning, together, and doing something that we as a family love to do. While there are many games that my husband and I play together, and many we can play with our eldest son, finding a true family game that everyone enjoys can be hard. Here are some more of the options on our shelves. Note that some require team play for the younger kids to really get involved.
Arguably the best game in our arsenal is Go Nuts for Donuts by Gamewright. It’s a points-driven game, and does involve some reading of the cards, but the illustrations are so appealing that little ones are easily distracted and readily involved. There are different decks of cards for different numbers of players, which keeps it fresh every time you play. It’s cute and easy to understand. This is a great game to bring with you to family events, as it is a good starting game for any level of gamer. You accumulate Donuts, and when the cards run out, the person with the highest total wins. Some cards deduct points, some increase in value the more you have of that kind. Some just taste good. Keep a box of real donuts handy; this will make you crave them.
The Hare and the Tortoise by iEllo games is a card-driven betting game for up to five players (or teams). The game is loosely based on Aesop’s Fable of the same name, and involves betting on animals before racing those animals down a track. The first three animals to cross the finishing line receive points, and the winner is the player with the highest number of points, which is based on the animals they placed bets on. Younger kids definitely need to play as part of a team, but I’ve found that they are thoroughly entertained by the game play.
In Enchanted Forest by Ravensburger, there are treasures hidden under trees in the enchanted forest. You must travel around to find them and identify which treasure is on the card currently in the castle. No reading involved, but plenty of counting and memory. Our ten year old still loves this game. The four year old needs a lot of help, but enjoys the fairy tale aspects of it. It’s a great introduction to the mechanics of board games for a youngling. We will often truncate some of the rules to cut the game shorter. My husband played this as a child, which is why we have it now, but having been introduced to it as an adult, I can say it is wonderful. A nice, simple mechanic that will come in handy as they age into other games.
Blokus by Mattel is a simple tile placement game for 2-4 players. Much like Sequence or Cathedral, the premise of the game is simple enough, but gets tenser as the game progresses. My son started playing this with me when he was around seven, which was the perfect age for him to not get frustrated with me. Now he is ten, he still enjoys this, and so does his brother. For little ones, they don’t really get involved in the game play, but the bright pieces are fun for them to play with. They can join a team if you don’t mind losing, or simply play with the blocks if you don’t take your game time too seriously. Involvement, not authenticity.
Another is Tsuro by Calliope games. My seven year old is obsessed with mazes. Mazes on paper, in corn, as a game, and Tsuro feeds into that for him, as the game has you laying out a labyrinthine path for your token to follow. The goal is to keep your token on the board longer than anyone else. You can play it straight, or double-cross the other players. It gets complicated the more people you add, but is relatively simple to introduce at a young age. It’s in regular rotation in our house, with our youngest playing on daddy’s team and guiding him in card selection and placement.
Evening in the Stable by Haba: If you are looking for a series of games to introduce gaming at a very young age, you really can’t go wrong with Haba. While Brandon the Brave is one of our favorites and a great precursor to Cataan, it is Evening in the Stable that has proved most popular with our kids at a very early age. House rules often apply, and have changed with each child, but the game itself is set upon a farm and has very few rules. The animal parents have all gone awol, away at their own all night Risk session, and so Roy Rooster has to put all the kids to bed. However, as he is used to waking them up, a random cock-a-doodle-do occasionally comes out (my children favor the French Cocorico!) and wakes everyone up. The game is fun and silly, and gets all the giggles in all the right places.