I try not to dote too much on my kids here at my blog and bore all of you with countless stories about how amazing, beautiful, and intelligent they are (which is all true, of course). But we’ve been playing a good number of games lately as a family, so I thought I’d take a little time and go through some of those that have been most successful for us.
Now that Samantha has hit the magical age of 6 years old, it seems like a whole new level of game has opened up to my family. The early literacy skills that she got during Kindergarten go a long way, her math ability (especially what she can now do in her head) is vastly improved, her fine motor skills are getting much better, and even her ability to see the bigger picture of how game systems interact have all made a notable advancement over the last year or so. Corinne, of course, is still pretty young (she’s just 3), but even though she can’t always fully understand all of what we’re doing in some of the more complex games, she has really surprised me a few times in how good a handle she can get on them. And if all else fails, I’ve also tried the old trick of having her “be on my team” as we played together.
While games like Go Away Monster, Candy Land Castle, Don’t Wake Daddy, and Take the Cake (all of which have little to no actual choice or skill involved in them) used to be our go-to games, we’re now starting to really enjoy games that rely on memory, risk assessment (“push your luck”), sensory acuity/pattern matching, and real decision-making. It’s pretty cool, actually, especially when I see my little girls having so much fun with games and wanting to go back to them over and over. So, here we go with some of the ones that we love the most right now:
I’ve mentioned this before, but I can’t write this article and not mention it again. As a whole family, nothing else works quite as well as does Spot It! Yes, we still have to throw Corinne a bone every so often, but with no actual handicapping or help from us, Samantha is often at least competitive in the game, and on at least one or two occasions, she has won outright. It’s such a simple game of finding the picture that your card has in common with the card on top of the stack, but it’s definitely a game that involves a real skill that takes focus to succeed in and that you can improve with practice over time. Gwen (my wife) has always loved real-time games anyway, and this one falls in such a great spot for us that I’m sure we’ll be playing it for years to come.
Ever since we had Samantha, I’ve been picking up children’s games I had heard good things about whenever I would encounter them. So when I was going through the pile of unplayed kids games a few months ago, I pulled out Duck, Duck, Bruce along with a few other Gamewright card games in my little closet. And from the first time I put it on the table and taught it to my girls, they both took right to it.
It’s a simple game of pushing your luck, where on their turn, a player starts turning over cards from a deck and putting them in a line. The deck is made up of cards picturing between 1 and 4 ducks in 8 different “suits” (meaning that the ducks are being pictured in 8 different places, like a football field, a gym, in the woods, on the moon, etc.), and if you ever flip a card from a suit you had already flipped that turn, both of those cards and all the cards between them are discarded, you get any other cards left, and your turn is over. You might also turn over a Bruce card (Bruce is an over-excited dog that chases the ducks away, of course), which prevents you from picking up any new cards you flipped this turn, but also lets you roll a die to have a chance at stealing cards from an opponent. And of course, at any time on your turn before one of those things happen, you can choose to stop flipping cards to take all you had pulled so far, so the game is built on a really cool and meaningful push your luck mechanic.
Again, it’s not complicated at all, but it’s just an amazing sight to see my 3-year-old making a real decision to stop where she was and bank her cards, rather than going too far and losing everything. In fact, the last time we played, she won both games fair and square, which is pretty cool for everyone involved. And win or lose, it’s just fun to sit there saying “Duck, duck, duck” as someone flips cards, finally yelling, “Bruce!” when the dog card comes up. It’s definitely a huge recommendation from me to anyone with children of almost any age.
The other big hit with us lately has definitely been Bugs in the Kitchen. This is a Ravensburger game that somehow got brought over to the US apparently through an exclusive deal with Target. The idea is that there is a “bug” in the kitchen, and in real time, players take turns rolling a die that lets them turn little utensil-themed gates on the board one way or the other to try and funnel it into their trap to score a point. What makes the game an absolutely off-the-hook blast, though, is that the “bug” is actually one of the cool little HEXBUG Nano mechanical bug things that vibrate around, “walking” in a semi-random way back and forth on the board until finally landing in one player’s scoring pit.
The game is certainly very chaotic and unpredictable, but at the same time, it also takes some real spatial reasoning to look at the board and make a decision about which utensil to turn to open up a path that will lead the bug to your trap. As with Spot It!, the real-time element also ramps up the excitement and keeps it from outstaying its welcome.
After a number of plays, I will recommend a little house rule about putting the bug into the kitchen to start, though. There’s basically two halves to the board when the utensils are all in their starting positions, and if the bug is dropped on the starting player’s side, it’s possible that they can win with just one move. So try to make a habit of dropping it on the opposite side to give at least a few players the chance to interact with it.
I got this in a trade (from local friend Chip) after hearing how great it was. It’s a simple car racing game from HABA where you roll a handful of dice on your turn that each have 6 differently-colored faces. The spaces on the track are colored to match the faces, and you get to move your car based on what you rolled. But the real skill of the game is in looking at your dice and the spaces in front of you, and then deciding which ones to use in what order to get the furthest along the track. It’s a real choice because there are almost always 2 or 3 different spaces in front of your car that you could potentially go into, each of which will offer different choices for the next space you could take.
Now, there’s still a lot of randomness in the options you have from your roll, but there’s definitely still a real game going on here. Samantha does pretty well with maybe just a hint here or there to do her best, but Corinne isn’t really able to see ahead enough to plan her move yet. And while the girls have enjoyed playing, I also have to admit that so far, anyway, this is one that Daddy probably likes more than they do.
This old classic has done pretty well at least once for us. To make it successful, though, we definitely used the variant meant for younger players where you put all their cards face-up on the table so they could try and get their piece to any of their treasures, rather than just limiting them to one card at a time. And frankly, to keep it from wearing out its welcome, we recommend adults doing the same thing (or at least looking at more than one card) as well.
Of course, the whole deal with The aMAZEing Labyrinth is that you continually push lines of tiles around every turn, which changes the pathways on the board all the time. And again, while this was a little over Corinne’s head, Samantha definitely surprised us a few times in seeing something that we maybe hadn’t even noticed. And I definitely see a lot of potential for us going forward to grow into this game even more.
I actually have this on my iPad, and I’ve played it there a number of times with both girls. And then this past weekend, I took them to my FLGS after watching a movie, where we played the store’s copy of the real version. And in both media, the game works really well.
The game is basically a race game that’s driven by a memory element. The track is made up of eggs that have different pictures on them (two of each picture). In the middle of the track, you have face-down tiles that have the same pictures on them. So on your turn, you try to remember/guess which tile in the middle has the same picture as the next egg in front of your chicken. If you’re right, you move onto it and go again. Eventually, the player that catches up to every other player (stealing their tail feathers) is the winner.
The upside of the game is that it’s basically just Memory, but made much more exciting. And when it comes to memory, Corinne is pretty amazing. Samantha did well, too, but there were a lot of times when (as long as she was actually paying attention) Corinne would help Samantha find a tile she needed. The only real downside of the game is that, theoretically, it might never end. Since you have to literally catch up to and overtake every other player in the game to win, it’s very possible that players could keep going back and forth without one ever making the final jump they would need to win. But eventually, it always seems to happen that one or more players finally learn every tile well enough that whichever of them goes next just doesn’t miss any and wins, so I haven’t actually had it be a problem in a real game. And of course, for a shorter and easier game, you just have to remove some of the memory tiles and their matching eggs, which is really easy to do.
Yeah, that’s what I said. It’s a little hard to believe, but Samantha and I actually had a couple of really cool experiences with Escape: Curse of the Temple.
The way it happened is that I had just introduced Gwen to the game and played a couple of times the “real” way. But Samantha and Corinne were really fascinated by it, so I decided to “play it” with them sort of fast and loose. I reduced the number of tiles in the game, started with less power gem thingies, and totally ignored the requirement to return back to the starting chamber during the game. And as we were rolling dice, I kept an eye on Samantha pretty much the whole time, helping her see things or remember what she needed to do pretty constantly. But even with all that tweaking and help, what amazed me is that I still felt like we really had a genuine play experience with the game! It was exciting and a little tense (since I still had the music playing and said we had to escape before it stopped), and I was truly impressed with how well she started to understand how the black curse faces would lock down the dice, how the golden faces would clear the curses, and what sort of combinations were used to explore, move, and collect the gems. And overall, I definitely felt like the liberties I took with the game rules were much less “cheating” than just making the game “age appropriate” for a 6-year old.
Your mileage may vary with this game, but it was certainly proof to me that I should experiment a little more to give my girls some room to surprise me!
Other Games I’ve Tried
Not everything we’ve played has gone over quite as well, though. Here are some others that we’ve attempted:
Chateau Roquefort – It’s similar in some ways to The aMAZEing Labyrinth, but giving young players 4 actions to use on their turn is a bit overwhelming at first. It’s cute as all get out, though, and I hope the enjoy it more as they get a touch older.
Enchanted Forest – Again, this is another memory-based game that has a lot of potential, but it definitely seemed to drag on for us. And when kids get bored and stop paying close attention, a memory mechanic becomes almost impossible.
Gulo Gulo – We also tried this at my FLGS this weekend, and the problem is that only Samantha was able to do it. My big, fat sausage fingers didn’t pick up a single egg all game long, while Corinne is still a little too out of control with her fine motor skills. So in the end, we just stopped playing after having to reset the egg alarm 2 out of every 3 turns.
Zeus on the Loose – Samantha is pretty good at counting and doing basic math, but this sort of continual running addition that then gets interrupted every so often by a special card was just a little too much for her to keep up with. I bet that in just a few months of 1st grade, though, this will change.
Slamwich – Samantha did pretty well with this, actually, but I just didn’t have a lot of fun with it. It’s a glorified version of War, almost, with a little pattern recognition thrown in to mix it up a little. I’ll try it again, though, just to see if I’ve missed anything with it.
So, what other children’s games would you recommend for a younger, school-aged child? I’d love to have any recommendations for me and for the other parents reading out there?