Cross-posted from my dad blog…
We played a lot of board games this year. And by “we,” I mean all six of us. We started the year with a post-wedding family vacation, where we played an all-family game of Sleeping Queens. Later that month, Emily and I went on our honeymoon, where I introduced her to Castles of Burgundy. (Yes, we played a board game on our honeymoon. I married well.) I took the older kids to Nashville’s new board game cafe, Game Point, once or twice, and the 10-year-old asked to visit Pieces, the board game cafe in St. Louis, during our daddy-daughter weekend trip there. Throughout the year, the 10-year-old helped me break in all the new games I bought (and even helped pay for a copy of one of her favorites), and the 7-year-old asked me at least once a week to teach him a new board game. With enthusiastic game players in my family and some younger players added to the mix this year, it was a great year for board games at stately Bruff manor. And I’m happy to recommend a few of our favorite family board games to you, just in time for the holidays…
Santorini (Roxley, 2016) – I picked up this beautiful abstract strategy game for my oldest daughter for Christmas, mainly because of its Greek myth theme. I had no idea it would be such a hit with the kids! We played it eight times in a row after we unboxed it in January! And once the 7-year-old learned to play, Santorini became a staple of our playroom. It’s easy to learn, comes with great components, and has a ton of replayability.
Players take on the role of builders in ancient Greece, moving their workers around a five-by-five grid of squares creating taller and taller towers. The goal is to move one of your workers to the top of a three-story tower, or trap your opponents where they can’t move at all by surrounding them with structures. Each turn, you select one of your two workers to move to an adjacent square (diagonal is okay) and then build in a square adjacent to their new location, either starting a new tower or adding a story to an existing tower. This move-and-build mechanic is simple, but creates all kinds of tactical decisions. You might want to build a third story to the tower next to you, for instance, but since your opponent moves next, you know she’ll hop on top and win the game.
Adding some fun to this base game are the variable powers each player has, thanks to some helping friendly characters from Greek mythology. If you play with the Hermes card, your workers can move as much as they want each turn, but only if they don’t move up or down. Demeter lets your worker build twice in the same turn, as long as they build on different squares. The Minotaur lets you knock an opponent out of their square and take over their space, assuming they have a space on the other side to land in. Those are a few of the simple powers; more advanced powers add all kinds of complexity, like Persephone, who forces opponents to move up a level if they can, or Ares, who lets you destroy certain building blocks, or Circe, who lets you use an opponent’s power if their workers aren’t adjacent to each other.
Santorini has a chess-like feel to it, especially when you’re playing two players. But it’s simpler and quicker than chess, and the variable powers mean every game feels a little different. Given that, and the fact that games take 10 or 15 minutes, we’ll often play a few times in a row. My kids are really good at this game; I have to work hard to beat them! Abstract games aren’t my thing (I like something with a bit more theme), but clearly they are for my kids. They’ll break Santorini out and play it when we’re busy making dinner or otherwise occupied. The box says ages 8 and up, but a 6- or 7-year-old who likes abstract thinking would certainly enjoy Santorini. I think our 7-year-old loves it because it’s so visual and tactile. He can see and feel all the strategy choices right in front of him.
Santorini plays great at two and three players. It has a four-player mode where teams of two face off, but we haven’t tried that. Nor have I tried the Golden Fleece expansion, which I just discovered, but there’s a good chance it will show up under the Christmas tree this year. For other abstract strategy games along these lines, check out Tsuro, which handles pretty much all ages and up to eight players, and The Blood of an Englishman, a puzzly two-player that pits Jack versus the Giant. (Those links lead to reviews I’ve shared in previous blog posts.)
Outfoxed (Gamewright, 2014) – Back in January, I became bonus dad to a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old. That has meant (among lots of other things) some more games for younger players in the rotation. Thanks to a recommendation from a friend, we picked up Outfoxed last January. Like Santorini, this is a game we usually play more than once! It’s a really charming cooperative game, which is a great kind of game for a boy who doesn’t like to lose, and it’s led to some triumphant bonding moments when beating the game.
Players take on the role of detective chickens, which is a role I’m fairly sure is unique to this board games! Mrs. Plumpert’s prized pot pie has gone missing, and it’s up to the chickens to deduce which sneaky fox has done the deed. Each turn you roll three dice, each of which has sides decorated with paw prints and shifty eyes. You roll Yahtzee-style, where you can keep the dice you like and reroll the ones you don’t, up to twice. If you don’t get three of a kind, the fox token moves closer to his or her escape. However, if you get three eyes, you get to turn over two suspects from a pool of 16 face-down foxes. Each fox has a guilty look, and a few items of clothing or accessories to distinguish it, including gloves, monocles, umbrellas, and scarves.
If you get three paw prints, you get to search for clues, which is the 7-year-old’s favorite thing to do. The game comes with a clever little box where you slide in a thief card at the start of the game, sight unseen. When you find a clue, you get to reveal a bit of that card that tells you something about what the thief was wearing — maybe they had a scarf, or didn’t have a monocle — without revealing the thief’s identity. That allows you to rule out suspects you’ve flipped over, and, if you’re clever enough, you’ll figure out precisely who the actual thief is before he or she gets away!
I don’t think we’ve lost Outfoxed yet, but we’ve come really close a few times. And when we think we have deduced the thief’s identity and slide the box fully open to check, we cheer when we’re correct! I love that the game is tense enough to create drama, but not challenging enough to be discouraging. Nor is it so complicated that we can’t all play. Indeed, even the 4-year-old (now a 5-year-old) can fully participate. You roll dice, you move your detective chicken, you find clues… it’s all accessible and colorful and charming. Teenagers might find it a little too simple, but adults who like spending time with their littles will find Outfoxed just complex enough to be engaging. It handles up to four players, and it plays in about 15 or 20 minutes.
For another cooperative family game, check out Forbidden Island, which is more challenging and skews a bit older. For other great games for younger players, I recommend Sleeping Queens, which was the 10-year-old’s favorite game for years, and Gobblet Gobblers, which plays like Tic-Tac-Toe but is way more fun.
Deep Sea Adventures (Oink Games, 2014) – I had heard great things about this small-box game from Japan’s Oink Games, and I picked it up somewhat impulsively while visiting Vault of Madness in Grand Rapids, Michigan, back in September. I highly recommend Vault of Madness if you’re in Michigan… they had the best selection of games and comics I’ve seen in a long while! I’ve only played Deep Sea Adventures with a kids a few times, but even the 15-year-old had fun, and she’s a tough audience. It’s a push-your-luck game with colorful components, simple but tough decisions, and lots of tense moments. It was an instant favorite for me, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with the cousins at Thanksgiving this week.
In the game, between two and six players take on the role of down-on-their-luck treasure hunters. You’re in search of treasure at the bottom of the ocean, but you’ve only got enough funds for one submarine. This means that all players share the same oxygen as they dive down, grab treasure, and return up to the sub. At the start of the game, you lay out a path of face-down treasure chips, starting at the adorable cardboard sub. The treasures get more valuable the further down they are, and on your turn, you roll dice to move down the path to get the goods. When you land on a treasure chip, you can pick it up — face down, so you aren’t sure how valuable it is. You can go down as far as you like, picking up treasure all the way, but each piece of treasure slows you down (subtracting one from the movement you roll on the dice) and causes you to use more oxygen. There’s only so much oxygen on the sub, and all the players share it! When it runs out, any player still underwater… drops their treasure and is rescued by dolphins, as we like to say when we play.
Deep Sea Adventure has a simple press-your-luck mechanism: On each of your turns, you can keep diving for more treasure or head back to the sub. Once you turn around, you have to keep moving up. But if you keep diving, you might find yourself too deep and too laden with treasure to make it back. The only treasures scored are ones that players bring back to the sub, so sometimes it’s more strategic to turn around early and take what you can easily get. What I love about Deep Sea Adventure, however, is how one’s strategy needs to change depending on how other players are playing. If another player grabs three or four treasures, not only do they make it harder on themselves to get back to the sub, but they’re also burning your oxygen, so you have to plan accordingly.
The game is played over three rounds, after which players tally up their rescued treasure. Any treasure dropped by players due to lack of oxygen piles up at the bottom of the path. This means that choices made early in the game change the board for later, and it gives players a chance to assess each other’s risk tolerance for later rounds. The game feels different at different player counts, with two-player being more calculated and six-player being more of a free-for-all. These days, I’m really thankful for good six-player games! There’s a fair amount of randomness with the dice rolling, which I find helps with kids, since they don’t feel as bad if they lose. And the ascent back to the sub is almost always filled with drama, as some players make it back and some don’t. Younger players tend to pick up on the press-your-luck mechanic pretty quickly, although the 7-year-old just kept diving the first time he played until eventually realizing he needed to turn back occasionally if he wanted to score points! The game plays in 20 to 30 minutes, depending on how impulsive the players are.
For another great press-your-luck game, try Incan Gold, which involves treasure hunting in tropical ruins instead of deep seas, or Clank!, which moves the setting to a dragon’s lair. The game Sushi Go Party! also has some press-your-luck to it, and, like Deep Sea Adventure and Incan Gold, can handle a lot of players.
Stone Age (Z-Man Games, 2008) – All the games I’ve recommended so far have been lighter-weight, quick-playing family games. For something with a little more heft to it, try Stone Age, the game that the 10-year-old liked so much when we borrowed it from a friend that she volunteered to pay for half of it so we could add it to our collection. If you get her to show you our game closet, she’ll proudly tell you that she’s half-owner of Stone Age!
Stone Age is a great introduction to the worker-placement mechanic you’ll find in a variety of strategy board games. Each player starts with a tribe of five Stone Age hunters-gatherers, which they send out to various locations on the board to collect resources and score points. The various resource locations (food, wood, clay, stone, gold) require some dice-rolling, with the more precious resources requiring higher dice totals. You can send multiple workers to locations, however, to roll more dice, which means deciding where to send your workers takes some thinking. Other locations allow you to improve your tools (which lets you increase your die rolls) or your agriculture (which means less hunting-gathering) or, at a place we like to call the Love Shack, generate new workers. There are also spots to cash in your resources for huts and cards, which score points during and at the end of the game.
Players take turns placing their workers, so some spots are full before you can get to them, but the first-player position rotates each round, so you’ll get your chance eventually. After all players have sent out their workers, players take turns bringing them back, along with all the resources or other goodies they’ve collected. If you’re not able to feed your people at this point, you take a hit on points. This repeats until enough of the point-scoring huts or cards are gone, which means there’s often some strategy around when to trigger the game end. At the end of the game, most points wins. The game has multiple paths to victory, and gives you the sense that you’re always hustling to carry out your resource-gathering and point-scoring plans. The fact that some of the huts score way more points than others makes for some dramatic moments during the game, as one player scoops another to score a high-value hut. And sometimes those end-game bonus cards make a big difference in the final score, which keeps things tense throughout the game.
The game is well-designed and has great components, including a fake-leather and terrible smelling cup intended for die rolling, but I think what the 10-year-old loves most about it is that when we play, we name each of our tribe members. Her preference these days is Harry Potter characters or Disney princesses, and I like Marvel super-heroes, which leads to fun comments like “Ron and Hagrid are heading to the quarry” or “Heck yeah, Merida is going hunting” or “Iron Man and Hawkeye are going to recruit a new Avenger.” The 10-year-old even creates tiny paper labels and tapes them to her workers, so she can keep track of who is who. It’s completely adorable.
Stone Age handles two to four players, and games take between 90 minutes and two hours. In theory, one could play Stone Age in an hour, but that’s not really achievable with kids or with the storytelling we add when we play! There’s not a ton of down time in the game, which is great for a game of that play length, but it’s definitely not a game for younger players. I wouldn’t play it with a child under 10, unless they were already good with playing strategy games. But it’s a great introduction to the worker-placement genre for kids who can juggle a lot of options and like to plan ahead. It can be hard to track down at a reasonable price, but I’m glad we have it in our collection — and so is the 10-year-old!
For other mid-weight family strategy games, try Takenoko, which also has great components (including an adorable bamboo-eating panda), or Istanbul, which gives players lots of choices as they move their merchants around the fabled city working to earn rubies, or Isle of Skye, my personal favorite strategy game, which added a couple of great expansions since I recommended it last year.
Those are my recommendations for this year! What are yours?