MORE Family Games to avoid the Screen: a 2013 update
Yes, I realise this is rather too late for helping with your Christmas shopping. But think of it as an aid to early preparations for the next one. Following up Q’s astronomically popular board games review back in July 2011, we’ve taken on board (geddit?) a number of other TV alternatives in our repertoire and felt that an update was definitely required. So here it is: 11 games of varying degrees of difficulty, intensity and delight. Trying to grade them has caused not a little debate around the kitchen table, but it was clear that three games in particular came out on top in chez Meynell: FORBIDDEN ISLAND, PUERTO RICO and TICKET TO RIDE (Asia Maps edition).
But there are definitely other options for those who don’t like their games so overly complex or involved. Have fun.
Each column is marked out of 10, none is particularly objective, all designed to give pointers from this family of 4 (2 adults, 2 kids aged 14 & 11). The final score is just an impression - i.e. simply those we enjoy playing the most.
Reviewing the Games
221b Baker St: 7/10
This has been around for a few decades – and is quite a lot of fun. A variation on the Cluedo idea of playing detective by moving around the board (in Victorian London) looking for clues (à la Holmes). The difference is that there are around 40+ different cases to solve, each very different (not all of them murder). This requires an accompanying booklet of clues and solutions (we photocopied our’s since as each person’s go entails looking up the specific clue for each visited venue and waiting for a neighbour slowed the gameplay right down). Some of the clues are a little too obscure for younger children – often wordplays or completing proverbs – but this is in fact a favourite of our younger one.
Once you’ve worked out the solution, it is a race back to Baker St to make your accusation. So some tactics are involved in going round the board, but since you need to visit most of the venues, it doesn’t make much odds. It doesn’t quite get as high marks as it might because in time you will get through all the cases (quite speedily if you’re as keen on it as our daughter), and there are one or two rather clunky elements involving key cards and the police station etc.
Cluedo (Harry Potter Edition): 6/10
Cluedo is of course as old as the hills. And in our family, we’ve always cut corners a little bit by getting rid of the need to move around the board on the basis of dice throws (which make the gameplay tediously slow). However, this particular variation makes quite a difference, not simply because of the books/films tie-in element (or because we have a Potter-fanatic in the house). There are nice twists and additions for moving around the board and other aspects involving Potter magic etc. So this is the first time I’ve found Cluedo a more appealing prospect.
But it’s not hugely tactical or involved, which is why we’ve given it a lower score.
Forbidden Island: 9/10
This is a real winner. It’s easy to learn, doesn’t take up a lot of time and is quite unusual in that players have to work together to compete against ‘the island’ rather than each other. As a team, you have to retrieve 4 treasures and helicopter everyone off the island before it floods. There are 24 zone cards each with different properties and each player has a different skill to bring to the team (e.g. a diver, a pilot, an explorer etc). Each go entails discussion about tactics with the others about which areas you need to shore up against flooding before the next deluge and how best to get everyone off in time. This creates real tension and quite a sense of achievement if you manage to pull it off.
We only got it this Christmas, but played it a lot on holiday. Great stuff.
Don’t be put off by the game’s name – it’s not particularly intellectually demanding or that unique a concept, so this is perhaps a misnomer. It is very easy to learn and quite tactical as players take it in turn to place double-hexed pieces on the board – trying to outdo opponents into getting 6 different colour patterns completed. The website said that you can play on your own, but that’s not going to be a lot of fun, I shouldn’t have thought. It’s a variation on a number of what you might call geometric placement games (a distant cousin of Blockus, reviewed last time) but fair enough.
All four of us enjoy playing it: full of tension, and high on opportunities for revenge and opponent-scuppering (I suppose in that respect, it’s a little like croquet).
Puerto Rico: 9/10
Another winner and our real discovery recently (although some friends have mentioned it at various points and so it has been on our radar). However, our start was inauspicious. We’d never seen it played, nor had anyone give us the general idea – which was a bit of a problem because we all felt the instructions were rather lacking in clarity. So because there are so many elements, types of counter and concepts, 3 of us had to reread it several times before it began to make sense. This also makes the set up a bit of a pfaff.
Like Settlers of Catan (see previous games review), you have to gain the highest number of Victory Points. The fact that you keep these hidden from opponents until the end (and some VPs can only be calculated when the game ends) diminishes the tension somewhat (as you don’t really know what you’re up against). The things that confused us to begin with are the role of the Governor, and the many rules that apply to individual cards and roles within the game (at times it felt the need to master a constant stream of bylaws before one could settle down and enjoy it).
However, once overcome, there’s no looking back. Unlike Catan, there’s not much waiting around (each person’s go passes very fast, whereas Catan sometimes struggles to sustain the interest of less grown-up players!). Also, you are unlikely to be trapped in a losing streak (which can happen in Catan if you’re territories have very limited production potential). And the concept is fascinating: it is quite evocative of the early days of colonial expansion (so not very politically correct, then). Trade is clearly essential, as is the need to have some sense of civic responsibility – with the exception of the role of Prospector (which only helps the individual who plays it – we nicknamed whoever took this card the ‘capitalist pig’), each role usually has knock-on benefits for the whole community. Especially in the early stages of the game, you do need to work together to make the colony work. But as the end looms, tactics have to shift and this adds another dimension to the intrigue. It is well thought out, full of hidden intricacies (especially if you found the instructions hard to master!).
All four of us love it – and the only reason it doesn’t get 10 is the slight lack of tension.
Any game that has a satisfyingly heavy wooden board and pieces is always going to be a winner in my book. Quarto is very easy to pick up but deceptively simple. It is essentially a variation on Connect 4, so that you have to get four pieces in a row on a 4×4 grid, but with two important differences. Instead of 1 set of variables (red or yellow chips), this has 4 sets: long/short, solid/hollowed out, round/square, light brown/dark brown. Then instead of choosing your own piece to play, you choose your opponent’s piece. Nice.
Initially, it seems everything is against you: 4 contiguous pieces feels an impossible target, especially since you can’t pick what you want to play. However, you’d be surprised. It is all tactical – and the winner invariably wins before either player has noticed! A great quick game to have in the armoury.
This is brought by the same people who made Quarto and is similarly wooden, but more fiddly. Each player has a number of wooden barriers to place at strategic points on the board to prevent your opponent(s) from getting to the opposite side. A very simple idea again – but quite compelling.
We have enjoyed playing it, but it only gets 5 because we quickly bored of it. At times it offers more frustration than enjoyable tension.
Scotland Yard: 7/10
This is another of the older games here – which we’ve had for a while, but for some reason, omitted it from the previous survey. Despite its title, this is not a detective game but a fugitive chase around London. It is hide and seek on a board: one player is Mr X, a criminal on the run, while the rest are police officers chasing him. Mr X’s whereabouts are only revealed on the board every few goes – but all players move around the board using taxis, buses and tubes as well as by river (depending on how many tokens they have). The game ends when one player manages to land on the same spot as Mr X, or if Mr X succeeds in outrunning the rest by the time they all run out of tokens.
This is what gives the game tension and intrigue, though arguably, because only one person gets to be Mr X, others can get a little frustrated or bored. To make it ‘fair’ (for younger viewers!), you may need to play it several times which might stretch the patience of some!
Thought Exchange: 8/10
If you imagine what would happen if you combined an IQ test with a board game race, i guess it would turn out something like Thought Exchange. There are 6 categories of questions (each corresponding to the different coloured routes) and players draw a card instructing which colour they need to start on and which they need to end on. As a further tweak, each player must travel on a minimum of 3 routes. It probably sounds more complicated than it is – but the principles are pretty easy to pick up. The questions and challenges for each go, though, may be the problem for younger players and therefore quite frustrating. The only other frustration is rolling the correct number of dice to get to your final route can take a while.
Still, our 11-year old enjoys it and was insistent we give it a 7 for under 14s fun, which is more than what the rest of us would have guessed. You probably think this is damning with faint praise, but we all like it and so despite provisos, still give it an 8.
Ticket to Ride (ASIA Maps collection): 10/10
Well, what can I say? We are die-hard Ticket to Ride (Europe) fans – it is a great game (as reviewed last time), so it was perhaps inevitable we’d give it a 2 thumbs up. The Asia Maps Collection is a great development on the original (NB you must have either original T2R or T2R-Europe already in order to play this extension). It offers two more (slightly different) maps of Asia is extension. One requires 4 or 6 (not 5) players, while the other is for the more normal 2-5 players. It includes all the pieces from the Europe game, plus Himalayan mountain tunnels which work differently. For those whose Asian geography is not so good, this is quite an education (though don’t base travel plans on any of the T2R maps as they are not accurate or to scale – as we once learned to our cost, but that is quite a another story which does not bear dissemination!).
The main twist in this is that the 4 or 6 player game can be done in teams – you work together, though are not allowed to see each other’s destination or train cards. This makes actually makes it a lot more fun and exciting. All in all, this is the real winner in our house.
Where is Moldova?: 8/10
Having just mentioned geography lessons, this is the ultimate – and probably the most educationally worthy of the games reviewed here. It is a combination of Geography general knowledge and a mini-form of Risk set in Europe and its borders. As you move around the board picking up collecting various countries (either through dice rolls or answering questions), the aim is to get 5 contiguous countries before anyone else does. There are other moments of intrigue, such as being able to steal from others’ or taking a risk and collecting whatever country next comes up.
It’s a lot of fun – and not as ‘worthy’ as it sounds. But still, you may actually learn something in the process, such as how to answer the game’s titular question.
Getting the Games
All of these (and more) are now available a Q’s Amazon Games shop – hurrah. A little way you can help support this blog. But one or two can be bought cheaper at the Happy Puzzle Company, especially Where is Moldova (which is £20 cheaper there!).
No doubt some will look at the cost of some of the more involved games and gawp. £25 or £30 for a board game! You gotta be joking!
But stop and consider for a moment what many blithely spend that kind of money on. A couple of DVDs, which you’ll watch only once, or perhaps twice (i.e. entails screen-watching)? ONE (!) X-Box or Wii game (more screen-watching)? A family cinema outing: but for the 4 of us to go our nearest O2 or Odeon costs at least £35, and that’s with a supposedly reduced family ticket (i.e. extra-big-screen-watching)?
The great thing about these games is that you are doing something together, you con do it lots of times (especially if you’ve found a game everyone likes), and you don’t have to stare at a screen. Result. Worth every penny, I’d say.