It’s been a busy year, but I’ve still found time to play some really great board games with my kids and with various nieces and nephews and cousins. We played a lot of games over Thanksgiving break… 11 different games across three different states! With Christmas coming, I thought I might share a few recommendations for board games your family might enjoy. As with last year’s recommendations, this year’s skew a little younger, since my older two kids don’t ask to play games with me as much as my younger two. And like last year, after each new recommendation, I’ll link to some similar games I’ve recommended in the past.
Kingdomino (Blue Orange Games, 2016) – “Can we play the castle game?” That’s something I hear fairly often these days from the six-year-old, who has taken quite a shine to Kingdomino. I picked the game up last Christmas, based on some strong recommendations online, as well as the game’s 2017 Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) win in Germany. This is a family game that lives up to the hype. All the kids ten and under love it, as does their sixty-something grandfather!
In Kingdomino, players compete for domino-style tiles showing various kinds of landscapes (fields, forests, lakes, swamps, and so on) they use to assemble their own individual kingdoms. (Get the name? Kingdom + domino = Kingdomino.) Each tile has two landscape squares, sometimes with crown icons. Your kingdom starts with a single square and a little cardboard castle to sit on it, thus the six-year-old’s name for the game. You add tiles to your kingdom, making sure that at least one square of each new tile touches an existing square in your kingdom of the same landscape. The castle square is wild, so you can add any tile next to it, but as you build your kingdom, you’ll run into constraints on the kinds of tiles you can add.
Each round, four tiles are drawn and sorted in numeric order, with the higher numbers attached to generally better tiles, like the ones with crowns. Players take turns claiming the tiles: the higher the number on the tile you claim this round, the later in the turn order you’ll claim a tile in the next round. You can take that really great tile now, but you’ll get last pick in the next round. This makes for some nice tension from round to round, as players decide whether to claim something useful in the short run or position themselves to have better options in the future.
By the end of the game, each player will have a 5 x 5 square for a kingdom, or something close to it. Then everyone scores their kingdoms: for each continuous region of the same landscape type, you count the number of squares in that region, then multiply by the number of crowns in that region. For example, a forest with six squares and three crowns will yield 18 points, while a mine with two square and four crowns will score 8 points. You might have a really big region with just one crown for a handful of points, but if you’re clever and a little bit lucky, you’ll have a big region with lots of crowns for dozens of points and the win.
Kingdomino plays quickly, with short rounds and only short-term planning. This keeps the game lively and accessible for kids, as do the components, which are colorful and interesting. Each tile is unique, with some small but often entertaining illustrations on the various fields and forests and lakes. I’m partial to the giant sea serpent you can make out just below the surface on one of the water tiles. There’s also a field tile with a scarecrow at one end and a bunch of crows at the other end, keeping their distance. I recommend purchasing the Target exclusive version of Kingdomino, since it comes with a study cardboard tower for holding and dispensing tiles.
You can play a full game of Kingdomino in about twenty minutes, and the game scales well between two and four players. The game has a useful amount of luck involved, enough to keep older players from dominating but not so much that kids will feel frustrated over a lack of choices. Kingdomino is a perfect game for kids learning their multiplication facts. In fact, I think playing the game helped the eight-year-old better understand multiplication, given its visual representation of multiplication. Meanwhile, the six-year-old plays competitively and has fun telling stories with the two monarch tokens that come with each player color.
For other quick playing games that don’t require reading but do involve very light math, try Deep Sea Adventure, a press-your-luck game about diving for treasure, and Sushi Go Party!, a card game featuring anthropomorphic sushi. And for something similar to Kingdomino, but more complex, try Isle of Skye, which also features kingdom building through tile placement but with an added tile market and variable scoring conditions. It’s my favorite game.
Space Park (Keymaster Games, 2018) – I first played Space Park at a game night back in 2018. This new guy Matt showed up and taught us Space Park. It turns out, Matt works for Keymaster Games, the game publisher. When Matt set up the game that night, I was a little surprised I had never heard of it. I spend more than my fair share of time on board game Twitter and Instagram… you would think I would have noticed a game this beautiful!
The production quality on Space Park is amazing, but the game isn’t just shiny. In Space Park, players cruise around the galaxy collecting crystals and trading those crystals in for explorer badges. The badges you collect are worth different amounts of points, and it takes one player hitting 20 points to trigger the end of the game. But the badges also have different abilities that help you as you play. One badge might provide bonus points for other badges of a certain type, while another badge might give you a discount on future badges or provide a free crystal when you earn the badge.
If that sounds like other games you’ve played (like Splendor), then you’re not wrong. It’s the action selection mechanic that sets Space Park apart. There are seven locations on the board, each with a different action, but a player can only choose from three of those locations on a given turn, the three locations with rockets on them. You pick a rocket, perform the action associated that the location of that rocket, then move the rocket clockwise to the next available location.
It’s a clever mechanic, since rocket positioning becomes a key part of your strategy. You may have the crystals you need to earn that five-point badge in your hand, but if there’s not a rocket at Station 13, the location where you can “buy” a badge, you’ll have to wait. You may not be up a creek (or adrift in space, I guess), however, if you have a Fast Travel pass available. You pick these up by visiting the Astral Arcade and taking control of an adorable robot named Scout. The Fast Travel pass allows you to move one rocket one space clockwise before taking your turn. If you need one more purple crystal for that badge in your hand, but there’s no rocket at Lunar Woods, where the purple crystals are, you can burn a Fast Travel pass to move a rocket there, then get the crystal you need.
The rocket positioning makes for a really interesting game that’s often very tight and sometimes a little cutthroat. If you keep an eye on the other players, you’ll know what locations they need to visit, and you might just use one of your Fast Travel passes to make sure the rockets aren’t where your opponent wants them to be.
Space Park moves quickly, with short turns and a total playing time of maybe 20 to 30 minutes. All the kids I’ve played it with picked up the basic mechanics fairly quickly, although kids who can see how the various badges combo together will usually do better in scoring. There’s a bit of reading required, but not much and lots of useful iconography to help readers and non-readers alike understand the game. Space Park also starts a little faster than some other engine-building games like Splendor, which helps gets kids engaged.
And did I mention how gorgeous this game is? The retro art, the cute robot, the shiny rockets… it’s just great. (We like to make rocket noises whenever the rockets move around the board.) Space Park comes in a fairly small box, which makes the game nicely portable. And, like Kingdomino, Space Park handles two to four players equally well.
For other engine-building games, try Splendor, which is a really great gateway game, and Monarch, which has a bit of engine-building as well as really beautiful art. For more complex games with interesting action selection mechanisms, try Istanbul, another game with shiny crystals and locations with different actions, or Tokaido, the game of competitive vacationing in 17th century Japan.
Carcassonne (Z-Man Games, 2000) – I’m really surprised I haven’t already recommended Carcassonne here on the blog. It’s a modern classic, another Spiel des Jahres winner, and a part of my collection for years. It’s a great game for families, since it’s easy to learn and doesn’t involve any reading, but has enough depth to keep adults interested.
Carcassonne, like Kingdomino, is a tile-laying game. But instead of building your own kingdoms out of tiles, in Carcassonne players are all adding the square tiles they draw to a common medieval landscape. On your turn, you draw a tile and place it somewhere on the landscape, making sure that the sides of the new tile match the sides of any adjacent tiles… fields to fields, roads to roads, cities to cities. As the landscape grows, you’ll have more and more options for tile placement, but getting just the right tile to fit the three or four sides of a gap you’d like to fill, well, that takes some luck.
After you place a tile, you have the option of placing one of your tokens (“meeples,” a term coined by this very game) on that tile, claiming one of the features of that tile. If you claim a road, it will be worth one point per tile in that road. If you claim a city, you’ll get one point per tile in the city, or two points per tile if you manage to complete the city walls and close off the city. You can claim monasteries and fields, too, which have different scoring mechanisms. Once you place a meeple on a tile, it stays there until the game is over or that feature gets completed, so you have to be a little careful not to run out of meeples. Players score completed features as they go, and when a player places the last tile, the game is over and final scoring commences.
One wrinkle that adds some strategy: If two players both claim features separately that later connect, both players get the points for that feature. The eleven-year-old is great at using this rule to her advantage, glomming on to other player’s features throughout the game for easy points and for creating “mega cities,” her favorite way to win Carcassonne. One thing I like about Carcassonne is that younger players can do well with more straightforward strategies, like claiming monasteries, which are relatively easy to complete, while older players can work more complex strategies, like connecting features, keeping the game interesting for a variety of ages.
I can teach Carcassonne in five minutes, and players get the hang of it quickly. You can’t really plan ahead, since you don’t know what tiles you’ll draw, which keeps the game casual and easy for kids to hang with. Carcassonne handles two to five players equally well, although it’s better with at least three players. And it plays in 30 to 45 minutes, which is great for a weekday game night.
One thing to know about Carcassonne is that there are a ton of expansions, each of which adds new mechanics, tiles, and/or meeples. I see nine expansions for sale on the Z-Man Games website, and the Carcassonne “big box” comes with eleven expansions. The base game itself includes two optional elements: abbots, which turn the gardens seen on some of the tiles into scoring opportunities, and the river, which adds some tiles at the start of the game intended to spread the map out. I regularly play with the abbots and the river, even when I’m teaching the game to new players, but I haven’t tried the expansions. I’ve heard the first two expansions (Inns & Cathedrals, Traders & Builders) are some of the best. I picked up the first one recently, mainly because it adds a sixth player, which came in handy over Thanksgiving.
There are a couple of other tile-laying games I recommend, although both are a bit more complex than Carcassonne. Isle of Skye features a market mechanism by which players obtain tiles and a different set of scoring rules for the tiles each time you play, making for a lot more variability than Carcassonne. Takenoko also involves scoring features of a shared map you create together out of tiles, but with an adorable panda.
The Quest for El Dorado (Ravensburger, 2017) – For my last recommendation this year, I want to highlight a game that feels very different from the ones mentioned above: The Quest for El Dorado. I picked up this game earlier in the year for the eight-year-old, because I thought El Dorado would help him get ready to play Clank! with me, one of my all-time favorite games. As it turns out, El Dorado is a fine game in its own right… and one that he beats me at regularly.
El Dorado is a race game, with players speeding through the jungle to be the first to reach the lost city of gold, but it’s also a deck-building game. Each player starts with a small deck of the same cards. On your turn, you draw four cards, usually some number of machetes, oars, and coins. You can use a machete to move your explorer through a jungle hex, an oar to move him across a water hex, or a coin to move through a village. But you can also use your coins to buy new cards from a market board for your deck. These new cards include stronger versions of your starting cards, as well as cards that have various other useful effects in the game.
The cards you buy go in your discard pile. Every turn you draw four cards from your deck, and when your deck runs out, you shuffle your discard pile and make it your draw deck. This means that those better cards you just bought will show up in your hand later in the game, again and again, allowing you to move faster on your quest for El Dorado or buy even better cards for your deck. This is what makes the game a deck builder, like the game that invented this mechanic, Dominion. But unlike Dominion, where you just buy cards so you can get victory points, in El Dorado, you buy cards to win the race to the city of gold.
You can see the terrain ahead of your explorer, so you can buy cards to prepare for upcoming challenges, but sometimes it’s better to just stick with the cards you have and keep moving. This tension between moving faster now and investing in better cards for later is what makes El Dorado interesting, especially since you need to keep an eye on your opponents. If they get too far ahead of you, all those power cards you bought won’t help you win the race!
The other thing that makes El Dorado great is that the route to the city of gold can change every time you play the game. There are eight double-sided hexagonal tiles, and you can lay them out in different ways to create the route to El Dorado. Each tile has a different set of challenges to face, like a huge swath of think jungle to hack through or a choice between a long, easy route and a short, hard route. The game instructions recommend a half a dozen different route configurations, ranging in length from short to long. The eight-year-old and I have played the easy and medium ones at this point, and we’re looking forward to tackling the harder set-ups soon.
The Quest for El Dorado handles between two and four players. With two players, each player has two explorers to move through the wilderness, providing an additional set of choices to make. The game plays in about an hour, with the three-player version going a little faster, and the longer routes taking a bit more time. Between the variable set-up and all the different cards you can purchase for your deck, El Dorado has a lot of replayability.
There’s a bit of luck involved in the game, since you only draw four cards from your deck each turn, and that one three-oar card you need to cross the lake in front of you might not show up when you need it. But since players get to craft their own decks, and since there are ways to thin your deck of weaker cards, crafty players can make their own luck.
I really love the mix of short-term and long-term strategy in the Quest for El Dorado. The eight-year-old and his cousin love it, and I think it’s a great introduction to slightly longer, more strategy focused games for kids. For other great deck builders, try Dominion or Clank!, which I mentioned above. Both require a bit more reading than El Dorado. And I think El Dorado is a bit easier to teach, in part because the designer wanted the game to serve as an introduction to the deck building genre. And for another family game that doubles as a gateway to more complex strategy games, try Stone Age, which features a worker placement mechanic seen in other games.
Those are my recommendations for this year! Thanks for reading, and happy gaming!