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Suggestions for family fun — no TV required.
BY Thomas L. McDonald
may be getting more popular with families, but nothing will ever replace the
pleasure of gathering around a table to play a good board game with friends and
Even the games we love, however, can
seem a little stale at times. “Monopoly,” “Life,” “Sorry,” “Clue,” “Risk” and
other mainstream classics are certainly fun, but any parent who has trudged
past Queen Frostine and Princess Lolly for the hundredth time will find
themselves longing for something fresh.
Fortunately, there is life beyond
Hasbro. A new class of games, known alternately as Eurogames or German-style
board games, has revitalized gaming over the past 15 years. Characterized by
simple rules, unusual themes, high production values, and an emphasis on
strategy over luck, they make a welcome alternative for any family looking to
break away from the TV.
‘Settlers of Catan’
Although Germany has enjoyed a
thriving board-game culture since the 1970s, that unique game-design style
didn’t make any impact on these shores until Mayfair Games imported “Settlers
of Catan” (Mayfair, $42) in 1995. “Catan” now stands as the granddaddy of all
Eurogames and remains the perfect “gateway game” for anyone looking to explore
the genre or introduce it to friends.
“Catan” is played on a map created by
fitting together hexagonal tiles representing various re--sources: wool, stone,
lumber, grain and brick. Players compete for dominance in this land by building
roads, settlements and cities, which are paid for using resource cards
generated by the different tiles. For example, a road costs one lumber and one
This core concept has proven
endlessly flexible, spawning multiple add-ons, as well as spin-offs, such as
“Struggle for Rome” and the Bible-themed “Settlers of Canaan.” The basic games
are all designed for two to four players, with five to six-player expansion
sets, and are easily taught to gamers as young as 8 years old.
Other suggestions: “Carcassonne,”
“Tikal” and “Torres.”
‘Ticket to Ride’
Even if you don’t have a rail fan in
the house, “Ticket to Ride” (Age of Wonder, $50) is a sure bet for any family
suffering from “Monopoly” fatigue. Up to five players earn points by creating
rail service between cities on a map of the United States. For example, someone
pulls a “destination ticket” requiring service between Santa Fe and Seattle,
paying 16 points upon completion. To accomplish this, players take turns
drawing “railway car” cards of various colors. Once a player has enough cards
of a particular color, he can use them to “buy” a section of track matching
By carefully choosing destination
tickets, managing line purchases, and even using a bit of strategic blocking
against opponents, players vie to create the most valuable railway empire. The
rules are easy to grasp for players as young as 8 years old and can be
explained in about 10 minutes. The official website (DaysofWonder.com) hosts
demo videos and even an online version of the game for players to try before
they buy. “Ticket to Ride” is so popular that it spawned numerous sequels
featuring various maps and booster packs with new cards and alternate rules. It
even made a successful leap to Xbox Live Arcade.
Other suggestions: “Finca,” “Mille
Bornes” and “Incan Gold.”
has its charms, but “easy to set up” and “quick playing” are not among them.
“Small World” (Age of Wonder, $50) offers a fresh twist on map conquest by
recasting the entire affair with a wild array of fantasy races, each with
unique, randomly assigned powers. Players capture territories by placing a
certain number of race tokens in any accessible region: fewer tokens for an
empty region, more if it is occupied or has certain defenses.
If a particular race is stretched to
its limit by conquest and expansion, a player can opt to put it into “decline”
and choose a new race to continue the game. The idea is to mimic the waxing and
waning of civilizations over time, as up to five players vie for dominance on a
very small map. The game is deceptively simple: There are no dice rolls and
only a few rules to remember, making it ideal for mixed groups with kids as
young as 8.
Other suggestions: “Memoir 44” (two
players) and “Heroscape.”
6 and Up
There’s no reason to play a boring
game just because you have younger gamers in the house. Both “Flea Circus” and
“Walk the Dogs” are simple enough for 6-year-olds, but still appealing for
older kids and parents. They also benefit from nice “bits”: “Flea Circus” comes
with 40 soft plastic cats and dogs, while “Walk the Dogs” offers 63 little
rubber dogs representing seven distinct breeds.
In “Flea Circus” (R&R Games,
$16) people take turns playing cards in order to collect the most “spectators”
(cats and dogs) to their particular flea act. Various cards allow players to
collect different numbers of spectators from the center ring or steal them from
other players. With a 10-minute average game time, it’s a great warm-up game
for up to six players.
dogs is the name of the game in “Walk the Dogs” (Simply Fun, $32). Setup
provides the kids with some play time as they find creative ways to fit a
single line of 67 dogs on the table. Playing the game amounts to drawing cards
in order to select dogs from the beginning or the end of this line, and then
creating a new line of dogs for each player. Points are awarded for getting
longer lines of matching breeds, with the most points winning. Like “Flea
Circus,” it’s a nice, light game with appealing pieces and enough of a twist to
keep things fresh.
suggestions: “Sleeping Queens,” “Pig Pile” and “Lost Cities.”
Let the playing begin!
L. McDonald is editor-at-large of Games magazine
a catechist in the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.
INFORMATION Most of these games may
be found online at FunAgain.com or Amazon.com, as well as at some Barnes &
Noble bookstores. “Walk the Dogs” can be ordered from SimplyFun.com.