In a recent post on this site, I highlighted the key points to a conference I attended where one of the talks was about reclaiming Sunday as a day of rest, and one of the activities the speaker suggested for family time (on Sundays or in general) was playing board games. Board games are something I have been a huge fan of since I was a kid, and even to this day the three shelves that I have always been the most proud of in the homes my family has lived in are the ones for my books, my tools, and my board games. Plus, it is one of the few activities that I can generally get all of my kids to agree on doing; agreeing on which game to play is another story.
For some though, board games might dredge up boring memories of playing games like Sorry! or Scrabble as a kid or worse, unpleasant recollections of your old college roommate who always insisted on playing Monopoly or Risk as he assured everyone that this time he would play for fun, only to renege after a few beers. If that has been your experience or you just haven’t played them in a long time, you really owe it to yourself to visit a quality game store because board games have come a very long way since your childhood. Skip the game section at a your local department store and head to where the real Gamers hang out, where you will be surprised at how many fascinating games there are out there for a wide variety of ages and interests. Many of which I guarantee you, are far more capable of engaging yours or your children’s imaginations and minds, not to mention being far more beneficial, than playing video games.
For one thing, they are an excellent antidote to the kind brain atrophy that is rampant in our contemporary society. In a book I have recommended before, Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, shows how our culture’s addiction to the internet and all the other screen time we fill our lives with has brought about a “weakening of our capacities for the kind of ‘deep processing’ that underpins mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.” In other words, far too many people today have forgotten (or worse never learned) how to think, ponder, and reflect on things, let alone solve complex problems.
Playing board games is a way to reverse that “weakening” since they have been shown to be an excellent way for children to “acquire logical and reasoning skills, boost critical thinking and gain spatial reasoning”, as well as improving “verbal abilities and attention skills by making a child concentrate and focus for longer periods of time.” Moreover, as Jonathan H. Liu, over at GeekDad.com, has pointed out, board games are also a great way to teach and strengthen habits such as learning to take turns, thinking ahead, weighing choices and their consequences, team work, and of course being a good sport.
Furthermore, in addition to building up our brains, board games are also perfect for building up our bonds with others. Merely by being engaged in an activity that requires you to make eye contact with, talk to, and cooperate/negotiate with others puts you a step ahead of the kind of interaction most people tend to have with each other these days. More importantly though, as Allen Hebert of Your Holy Family ministries has written,
“playing games with each other forms stronger relationships because you are giving precious time to someone else just to be with them and enjoy their company. In the midst of playing the game, you visit and find out what is going on in their lives. There is also an opportunity to get to know their personality, how they strategize and approach problem solving and how they deal with winning or losing a game.”
In fact you can very often gain insight into your child’s temperament and talents by not only seeing how they play, but what kinds of board games they excel in- word games, strategy games, puzzle games, etc.
And speaking of insight, never miss a chance to invite your children’s friends to join in your family game time, since it is also a great way to assess the character of the kind of people your kids are hanging out with. This is especially during the tumultuous teenage years where at the same time they yearn for independence and struggle to form their identities, they still desire a familial connection to keep them grounded. I can’t tell you how many times, from both personal experience and from others, how fast many a teen will drop their “too cool” composure or “meh” sullenness when they are invited to take part in a familial activity where their ideas and personalities are acknowledged and valued. So despite what popular culture or psychology might say, it has not been my experience that teens always want to be left alone, and it is unfortunate how many I have encountered that are in fact hungry for and appreciative of some lively adult interaction. So be a gracious lord of your manor from time to time and host a game night for any and all who will come- just don’t forget the snacks!
My Top 10 Board Game Picks
The list of board games that I have liked over my lifetime would be a blog unto itself, but I will give you some of my favorites from 10 different categories- word building, memory, strategy, adventure, cooperative, puzzles, worker placement, reasoning, party games, and physical skill. I have tried to include games that are out of the ordinary and which actually require a fair degree of thinking or skill, but whose rules can be easily adjusted to accommodate differing age groups.
The links on the game titles will bring you to a short introductory video about the game, which I have found to be very helpful before you fork over a chunk of change for some of these games, because let’s face it, the descriptions on the back of the box are not always the best. There are two YouTube channels that I use, TTPM (Time to Play Magazine) which offers short 3-5 minute videos describing basic game play, and The Dice Tower which offers longer and more thorough videos. This can also be very helpful at times since as most of us have experienced before, directions are not always as clear as we would like them to be, especially if the game is foreign published.
1. Word Games
If your are tired of Scrabble or Boggle, then try Word on the Street. It’s board is designed like a street with a line of letters running down the center. You form up into two teams, and each team has 30 seconds to agree on a synonym to the word on the card drawn, and then spell it out using the letters on the board. Each team pulls the letters towards them one space when they spell a word with them, and when they pull the letter three spaces and the letter is won. However, the other team will be doing the same thing. Obviously the better your vocabulary, the better you will do, but as more letters are won, it gets harder and harder to think of words to spell.
2. Memory Games.
Most of us played the game Memory when we were kids where we repeatedly flipped over cards to find a matching set. But a great variation on that classic game is Stare, where a player is given 30 seconds to look at a card with a picture on it. After which they are asked questions about particular details in the picture. The questions can be made simple for younger players or more detailed for older ones, and are worth various points depending on their level of difficulty.
Most of us learned to play chess, because it taught us how to be patient, think ahead, and even how to read our opponent. It is easy to learn but really hard to master, which is why I think most people loose interest in it. However, there are a ton of other strategy games that can be quickly learned and played that require a lot of the “deep processing” Carr mentioned, to win. A favorite of mine is the classic game Cathedral whose playing board is a walled medieval city. You place the cathedral game piece somewhere on the board and then players take turns placing other building-shaped pieces around the cathedral. The goal is to capture as much of the board with your pieces as you can.
Having spent way too much time playing role-playing games as a youth, I have always tried to steer my kids away from them since they are time consuming and their subject matter can sometimes be objectionable without mature supervision. However, there are many games out that offer the same feel of an RPG by having the players assume character roles. My kids and I are big fans of the fantasy genre, so we loved to play Dungeon Quest. The players choose from one of four characters who must avoid monsters, traps, and waking a dragon at the center of a dungeon, load up on loot, and get back to their starting point before the game’s 26 turn time limit is up. Since the game board is created by having the players blindly draw room and passageway tiles, the game will be different every time you play.
Cooperative games are those where the players work together to accomplish a common goal as opposed to playing against one another: you either win or lose together. One of the most popular cooperative game out there is Pandemic. The game is based on the scenario that infectious diseases break out in four different parts of the world and players assume the roles of a dispatcher, medic, researcher, or operations expert. They must formulate a plan to isolate and/or cure the outbreaks based on the various cards which are drawn. This game is easy enough to learn but it is also easy enough to lose, since you are playing against the randomness of the deck. But for the Maccabee among us, there is Commissioned which is a game about spreading the Gospel in the post-apostolic age, which is actually very historically accurate.
Sometimes you just want to spend time with your family in a little less competitive manner, and this is where puzzle games fit the bill. They are great for developing spacial recognition and fine motor skills in kids, and teach patience and a stick-to-it attitude to older kids. Plus they allow differing temperaments to go at their own pace. Tangoes has always been a favorite of mine, where you try to arrange various plastic shapes to match the silhouetted shape on the cards. Q-Bitz is similar to it except that you have to match a bunch of cubes with patterns on them to the pattern on a drawn card. Also is Rush Hour, which now has many different versions and other imitators. You have to move a bunch of plastic cars around on a board in order to get a “trapped” car off the board according to a setup pictured on a card, which get increasingly harder.
7. Worker Placement
I used to call them “world building” games, but “worker placement” is the official term, and they are all based on the players competing against one another by acquiring land, people, or other resources to build anything from railroads to whole empires. The one that most people know is Settlers of Catan along with the numerous expansion sets. To be honest, these kinds of games are just not my thing as some of them can take up to three hours to play, but my kids liked them and a lot of schools use them to teach kids history and organizational skills. Plus, no matter what narrative genre you or your kids like, trust me, there is a worker placement game for you out there: Farming- Agricola, Fantasy: Above and Below or Rise to Nobility, Sci-Fi: Comsic Encounters or First Martians:Adventures on the Red Planet, Steampunk: City of Iron, Westerns: Carson City. Or maybe you want to run a medieval monasteries and acquire diocesan land: Ora and Labora. Is post-apocalyptic more your taste: Unearth, or maybe you loved the show Survivor, then you’ll love Robinson Carusoe. Or maybe, just maybe you are into tree farming and horticulture, and want to compete against others to grow the strongest strain of trees, then try Photosythesis.
If there is one area where our modern education system has really dropped the ball, it is critical thinking skills. Just as the encyclical Fides et Ratio said that “faith and reason are like two wings” which carry us to the truth, logic and intuition are the two halves of our brains which we must develop and strengthen in ourselves and our children. By doing so, we can not only learn to solve problems when we have the facts, but also how to make educated guesses when we don’t. As I mentioned in one of my articles about the importance of imaginative play, teaching kids to solve crimes is a great way to do this, since in real life, incomplete data and missing facts are the norm. There are a lot of excellent mystery-solving board games out there to teach logic and intuition, one of which is Mystery of the Abbey. Think of Chesterton’s Fr. Brown, the game Clue, and The Name of the Rose all mixed together in one game. You have to solve a murder in a medieval abbey by gathering facts and matching them against the list of suspects, who are illustrated on a sheet showing in exact detail the various orders at the abbey and their habits and physical descriptions. For younger kids, try Werewolf and its many versions.
These games are for when you have your friends or extended family over and you want to play a game that will involve everyone. A great game for this is Reverse Charades where you divide people up into two teams and then, unlike regular charades, one person will sit and watch while the rest of their team acts out some scenario. It is both fun and funny as you will laugh a lot with this game. I also like Utter Nonsense where the players are given seven cards with various phrases on them. Then the “accent judge” draws a card which says who everyone must sound like, such as an Australian, or Batman, or Mr. T. The judge picks the winner based on who he or she thought sounded the best.
Of course not every person will have the knack or temperament for a lot of the games mentioned in this article, so here then are some physically active games which can help develop hand-eye-coordination and manual dexterity. For smaller kids try Castle Blast, where you build a castle out of wooden blocks, and then place a treasure, a dragon, and a princess inside of it. Your goal is to use a crane with a wrecking ball to knock the castle down and eventually be the one to knock the treasure, dragon, and princess pieces to win. For older kids try Bounce Off which is a game that comes with a tray of 36 different colored plastic balls in individual slots. You draw a card which shows you the pattern you have to duplicate in the tray by first bouncing the balls off the table or floor and into the slots. It takes some practice, but it is good for developing hand-eye-coordination.
Finally, as this is a community for men, don’t be stingy in the comments with any suggestions you may have for your favorite board game and why.