Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Graphic: Nick Wanserski and Emi Tolibas

Break free from the screen: The best card and board games for your kids

Graphic: Nick Wanserski and Emi Tolibas
Field Guide To ParentingOur A.V. Club Field Guide To Parenting is designed to guide you toward the best kids’ books, shows, movies, and music, just like we do with The A.V. Club for adults. Every month or so, we will feature a new subject with a few essential pop culture takes.

Even if your grade-school-age kids don’t have phones yet, they’re likely already figuring out how to build their Minecraft estates on any devices you may have lying around (like that mini-iPad that came free with your phone), or quickly becoming addicted to Vine YouTube videos where people hurt themselves (Most Painful Pranks!). In an effort to rid the nation of another screen zombie generation—as well as encourage some healthy, one-on-one interaction with multiple generations on a game night—The A.V. Club offers some advice from a few parents who have been there. Below are some of our favorite games to play on top of a table and not on a screen. No power source necessary.

So many tickets to ride

Both my wife and I grew up in game-playing families and have passed the bug along to our kids. For the past several years, our teenage son has organized elaborate tournaments that run over his and his sister’s summer and winter breaks from school, where we all get points for each game won and special tokens we can use to gain advantages in future rounds. The tourneys usually involve up to 30 games, in a variety of genres—from classic card games like Phase 10 to more complicated contemporary strategy games like Catan and Castles Of Mad King Ludwig.

To keep the tournaments lively, we’ve been expanding our library by about a half-dozen titles a year. We rely a lot on Germany’s annual Spiel Des Jahres awards, where even the runners-up are usually worth playing. We’ve found a lot of our favorites on this list: Alhambra (a tile-laying game where players acquire money to purchase and construct a complex of point-scoring buildings), Splendor (a similar concept to Alhambra, where coins buy cards that allow players to buy more cards, building toward a particular target score), 7 Wonders (one of many recent card-passing games, where players have to decide not just what they want to keep for their own point-scoring tableau but also what they want to keep away from the players they’re passing to), Las Vegas (a fast-paced dice game involving a lot of crucial strategic decisions from roll to roll), Camel Up (an absolutely delightful and unpredictable racing game in which players place a series of bets on the title animals as they move around the track), and Colt Express (a beautifully designed train-robbery game where players try to plan and execute a string of actions without keeping track of all the ways their competitors are overly or covertly sabotaging them).

Note: Nearly all of the games above have versions that can be played on a phone or tablet, but I don’t recommend people sample them that way. Personally, I find that it can be hard to understand a board game if I play the app version first. Even though these games can be expensive, it’s still generally better to buy a physical copy, gather some friends and family, and learn the rules together. Trust me, all of the above are highly recommended.

Playing a lot of games has gotten me thinking about the ones I find the most fun and challenging, and why. For example, I like it when the gameplay lasts long enough for me to be able to make a lot of different moves, and to do some long-range strategizing. (My one beef about the otherwise excellent 7 Wonders is that it’s over too soon.) On the flip side, I don’t like it when the dynamic of the game means that one player takes an insurmountable lead, or makes it so that I have to endure multiple turns where I don’t have the resources to make any moves at all. I like the various iterations of Catan and Machi Koro quite a bit, but both games can be frustrating, because a few bad choices early on can mean that I spend the next half-hour or hour just watching my family members get richer at my expense while I can’t afford to buy anything.

That’s why our favorite game—now, and for pretty much the last five years—is Ticket To Ride. The gameplay is simple enough that both younger family members (I’d say about 7 years old and up) and grandmas and grandpas can figure it out. The goal is clear: Claim train “routes” of varying lengths and piece them together into complete predetermined (and mostly secret) journeys from one destination to another. And the turns are uncomplicated: Each time around, players can essentially only choose between claiming a route or acquiring the colored train cards they need to make those claims. There are a couple of other options, but they come up relatively rarely. What matters most to me is that there’s always something to do. Even during the time between turns, players can study the map and the available cards, and think about how to execute their plans more efficiently—as well as how to prepare for the inevitable moment when a competitor grabs the space on the board they needed.

My son knows the original Ticket To Ride map and routes so well that we can’t play that version against him any more. (He’s like Ray Babbitt in Rain Man at the casino, counting cards.) But there are so many Ticket To Ride expansions, with new maps and clever rules variations, that we frequently play three or four of the half-dozen versions of the game we own during our semiannual tournaments.

I know some other hardcore gamers find Ticket To Ride too basic, but the genius of it to me is that because everyone’s objectives are unique, everyone at the table gets to play their own game—and it’s often impossible to tell who’s actually winning until the final scores are tallied. No matter your skill level or strategic acumen, you can play an entire round of Ticket To Ride and feel like you’re actually accomplishing something, even if it’s just the simple satisfaction of gathering enough blue train cards to go from Winnipeg to Helena. [Noel Murray]

Life beyond Candy Land

When my kids were super young, I couldn’t wait for them to be ready for games—but in the early days, all that really came to mind was Candy Land. Much as I appreciated the fact that you didn’t even have to count to be able to play it (although the board’s sweet multihued confections might have been a problem for the color-blind), I just couldn’t get behind the glorification of that much sugar. My local toy store instead recommended The Sneaky Snacky Squirrel Game, a fairly simple game in which players collect colored acorns and in the process learn colors and, according to the box, “strategic thinking.” My kids couldn’t get enough of the giant squirrel that got to pick up all the acorns.

For their birthdays, I fortunately must have received at least three sets of Richard Scarry’s Busytown, a sort of “I spy” board made even more delightful by the fact that it features all of those great Richard Scarry illustrations. Anything in this category of game worked well, actually, even the I Spy Eagle Eye, which was fun for the children since Mommy’s eyesight is so terrible. And now that the kids are in middle school, we have Pictureka!, a more surreal “I spy” setup.

In my never-ending quest to tear them away from screens, I have been trying to expand our limited universe of board games. We started out with the classics—Monopoly, Life, Clue—where their favorite is easily Life. I can see why; it has about nine million pieces and a fun spinner. Sorry! has tried to make itself more enticing by adding confusing “heat” and “frozen” categories, and my son and I will spend hours on Uno. Just like with Monopoly, I’m convinced that Uno never really ends. I also found that you can play Go Fish with just about any sort of trading card that comes in pairs, like some dinosaur information cards I got at Chicago’s Field Museum.

Maybe my kids are more ill-tempered than other children, but many of these games ended in tears—over winning, cheating, Mom favoring one kid over the other, etc. Fortunately for our future family therapy bills, gaming expert John Teti informs me that there is a series board games known as co-op games, which encourage cooperation over competition. Yes, I know that life isn’t fair and full of participation trophies, but I also just wanted a few stress-free turns around a game board, in between other rounds of teaching them about good sportsmanship and the fact that everybody loses sometimes.

My genius sister-in-law gifted us with Forbidden Island, which is an addictive entry point to co-op games. All participants are trying to capture four treasures before the island sinks, and they each play different roles (like pilot, explorer, or navigator) to help make that happen. Meanwhile, they’re saving various mystical areas on the island with names that all sound like Cure songs (Cave Of Shadows or Howling Garden). Feeling a surge of adrenaline as our scrappy little team made it to the helicopter launching pad before the whole island went under, I could almost see a 20-sided die in my future, even though I have never dungeoned a dragon before.

Until then, however, we have Pandemic, based on my gaming guru Caitlin PenzeyMoog’s recommendation. The setup is similar, but the stakes are even higher than on Forbidden Island: You and your teammates have to stop four life-ending viruses, taking on roles like scientist and operations manager. It’s like Risk with infectious diseases, as you try to stem the path of illness; meanwhile as you pick up new cities to set up research centers in, the kids can learn about geography (“Great, now where’s Kolkata?”) It’s hereditary; I feel like a lot of my geographical knowledge is still based on Risk games when I was a kid, for better or worse (“You can invade Russia from Alaska!”).

Also on top of the table: Codenames, in which players have to help their teammates select words by using other words that tie two or more together. For example, with the words “turkey” and “revolution” on the table, I offered “Benjamin Franklin”; somehow my daughter still didn’t get that genius clue, but it’s fun to try to figure out everyone’s possible thought processes.

I’m finding these games so fun that I’m thinking I’ve missed a step by not getting into these kind of scenario sagas and games that have been produced since my childhood before. But mostly I’m glad to have evenings with the kids where I see their faces and not just the tops of their heads. I’ve been determined to host our Friday game nights as long as I possibly can, figuring I am in a race against time until adolescence rears its snarky head. That’s why it’s nice to hear stories like Noel’s above: His kids are teenagers and still play games with him! Maybe there’s hope for us all. [Gwen Ihnat]

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