Video gaming 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 family.
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 brick.
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 that color.
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.”
“Risk” 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.
Collecting 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.
Other suggestions: “Sleeping Queens,” “Pig Pile” and “Lost Cities.”
Let the playing begin!
Thomas L. McDonald is editor-at-large of Games magazine
and 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.