Kids don’t come with instruction manuals, right? From the time you leave the hospital to the time you blink and they’re 25 years old with a car, it’s all pretty much common sense, luck and a whole bucket full of teachable moments. Fortunately for us gamers, all of our games do come with instruction manuals. These two thoughts have been swimming through the grey matter between my ears for a few days now, bumping into each other and generally causing havoc while I’m trying to think about other things. In order to get them out of my head and onto this page where they’ll leave me alone for a bit, I decided to write this rough guide to raising your own gaming group.
I’m not a child psychologist (although I do hold an MEd.) and I’m not a perfect parent (but I do have two kids who are poised to be better people than I am) but what I do have is an overactive brain and a lot of experience in playing games with kids. So please do not consider this the be-all end-all guide to playing age appropriate games with your kids. It’s just one man’s experience guiding his two daughters from “spit it out! Spit out that meeple!” to “I know it says 14+ but I think you can handle this game”.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list but more of an overview with a few highlights that I feel really pull out the best of both the games and the children, as well as us parents. They may not be your favorite games, but they’re at least (in the early years) tolerable and not inclined to cause a backyard incident with a My Little Pet Shop Monopoly board and a charcoal grill. This is what worked for my wife and I with our kids and perhaps you can pull something from this list that will work for you and yours.
I recommend a good set of blocks. Something that can be chewed upon without inflicting serious damage on the child or the toy. Sitting in the lap of an adult and mucking about with some sturdy game pieces can also be fun but really, adult supervision is required. A child this age may attempt to eat, bend, drool on, shove into various orifices or otherwise mangle game pieces. Blocks are the way to go. Use them to stack, use them to start letter recognition, etc. If you have games with big, chunky components that won’t scar when bitten, letting the kids play with the pieces is also a lot of fun. They may not get the game but building a familiarity with the bits and just having fun with them works too!
We started both of my kids off pretty young (3-4) with Hi Ho Cherry-O (BGG|Amazon) and Candyland (BGG|Amazon). While not the most fun things to play, they did perform several very important roles. They’re both great games at showing children how to take turns, how to play fair and how to win/lose with at least a modicum of grace. They’re also great in reinforcing things like counting in a game. Other games we’ve tried that also help with these skills are Connect 4 (BGG|Amazon). As my kids got closer to 4, we also introduced Guess Who (BGG| Amazon) – a fun guessing game that teaches kids how to organize their thoughts and how to ask appropriate questions.
After we got through those games and when each kid hit about 5, we started a heavy rotation of Gamewright Games. We also kept Guess Who in the rotation but modified it using the same methods Tom Vasel (Dice Tower) suggests – each player chooses 2 people. Changes the whole game, and for the better! It’s already familiar but this new aspect makes asking more rounded and general questions key.
Back to Gamewright – Feed the Kitty (BGG|Amazon) and Hisss (BGG|Amazon) were particular favorites. They move the ideas of fair play, taking turns and whatnot forward a simple step, and also provide games that won’t land parents in Arkham Asylum after six plays in a row. The Curse of the Ruby Rhino (BGG|Amazon) is another great game that involves lots of tactile throwing coins into a treasure chest (the game box) and pulling them out again.
From there we moved on to more Gamewright games including Slamwich (BGG|Amazon), which was a favorite. Other similar type games were any of the Magic Labyrinth (BGG|Amazon) style games, Blast Off (BGG|Amazon) and King Toad. (BGG|Amazon) Sorry (BGG|Amazon) is a great game because it forces kids to deal with major setbacks, which with a little thought are recoverable but at the time seem waaaaay huge. A few games of Sorry for each kid helped teach them the concept of the long game. We also got ahold of Catan Junior (BGG|Amazon) when my youngest was about six and a half. That was a huge hit for our whole family. Enough of a decent game to keep the adults entertained but the kids can still win using their developing sense of strategy. Also introduced at this age was Zombie Dice (BGG|Amazon) – which my youngest still loves. We shied away from this perhaps a little longer than we had to mostly because of the theme and the use of shotguns to blow zombies brains out through the backsides of their heads.
We introduced Frog Juice (BGG|Amazon)(a neat component collecting, spell casting game) and started looking at broader, more strategic games. This is the age where Forbidden Desert (BGG|Amazon), Forbidden Island (BGG|Amazon), Castle Panic (BGG|Amazon), Cube Quest (BGG|Amazon), My Happy Farm (BGG|Amazon)(a far more complex, interesting game than it sounds) and Carcassonne (BGG|Amazon) sans farmers come into play. The beauty of this age is that you can see them getting it with each subsequent play. It’s a real joy to watch both of my girls broaden their strategy and bump into new concepts. Those light bulb moments are great, and applicable outside of gaming as well. With the co-op games, I found myself generally playing the guide for them on the first few play throughs until they got the fact that it wasn’t a competition and until they became accustomed to the rules. In both cases, my kids picked up the individual quirks of the co-ops within 2-3 games and haven’t looked back since. Tsuro (BGG|Amazon) is another title that we introduced recently and the whole family enjoys it. It’s a pretty laid back version of cut-throat.
The big hit at this age, for both my then 10 year old and 7 year old – King of Tokyo (BGG|Amazon). Oh. My. Goodness! They ate this game up! The push your luck aspect, with the chucking of a bunch of dice and giant robots and creatures. Instantly a hit.
My 8 year old is about a month away from 9 and she’s started taking a real interest in Magic: The Gathering (BGG|Amazon), Diamonds (BGG|Amazon), Dominion (BGG|Amazon), and even X-Wing (BGG|Amazon). Of my two kids, she’s the gamer. We’ve also started playing a lot of Love Letter(BGG|Amazon) and Hanabi (BGG|Amazon) at her request. She’ll dabble in other titles too. For both kids (and our family as a whole) Ticket to Ride (BGG|Amazon) is a must-play and is still very much requested. Got ‘Em! (BGG|Amazon) is another great game that combines some interesting strategy with random card draws and is also another big request.
My 11 year old is entering her teen years. That combined with the fact that anything I do can’t be cool has her not gaming as much. She still loves a good game of Dominion though and her and her younger sister recently went all kinds of bonkers when I gave them my somewhat meager stash of Magic cards. So the fire’s still there.
She’s good enough at Dominion that she wins about 40% of the time when playing against adults. She’s also dabbled in other games and seems to enjoy trick taking games like Diamonds as well. While a lot of games are marked 14+, I think my 11 year old has the wherewithal to play those titles as well, just not perhaps the interest to invest the time into them.
Dependent more on Ability than Age
Some kids, particularly if raised by gamer parent(s) I think, just get the whole thing. They may be able to handle the complexities of games aimed at older people sooner than other kids. Also, every child is an individual and you know your kids, so don’t pass up an opportunity to try something more complex, but be mindful of theme
Both kids also love the classic board game Dungeon (BGG|Amazon), and have played (the 8 year old with more help than the 11 year old) Seasons (BGG|Amazon). They really like that one, but it’s kind of a chore for us adults to help them out so it makes it to the table perhaps only once a month. We also enjoy Dungeon Roll (BGG|Amazon) although I’m not sure how much of that is because of the neat box and excellent dice. I like the game personally but it can get a little long in 3-4 player configurations.
My almost 9 year old plays the heck out of Quarriors (BGG|Amazon) but doesn’t always take the time to read/understand all the card effects and still needs a bit of help with them. This game features so many dice it’s been a hit with nearly every kid I’ve ever introduced to it. At first they all seem to base their strategy on one of two things – either getting one of every color on offer, or going for the Dragon if it’s out. Later on they get some of the card effects though and actually start to develop some real strategy. I will say that lately my youngest can get a little frustrated with the many, many choices on offer though so we don’t play this one as much as we used too.
A few other games that both kids really enjoy: Tokaido (BGG|Amazon), a game of 19th century Japanese tourism. It’s a wonderful game of walking down a major road, with a neat turn mechanic while players try to eat the best food and collect the most sites and souvenirs.
Both girls also really like Bohnanza (BGG|Amazon) the card game of bean farming. It’s a great trading game played over an hour and a half or so with up to seven people. They can hold their own and they get to play with a group of adults too.
I’m sure there are a ton and a half of games that I’ve left out, forgotten about or just haven’t played. That’s the blessing and the curse of living in a golden age – no more scarcity! Too many games! You of course will know your own children far better than I do – their capabilities, their limitations, that zombies may enthrall them or give them nightmares for weeks. This is meant to be the reflection of one parent who set about to grow his own gaming group, so to speak. Hopefully you’ll be able to pull some suggestions from this list!
A note about the links in this article
Each game has two sets of links to accompany it. The first is the BGG link – this points to The Board Game Geek, a massive online database of everything board and card games. It’s been around for a while and frankly can be a real pain to navigate for someone new to the site. So I’ve linked each title directly. The second link goes to Amazon.com and is using my affiliate association with them. If you click on an Amazon link it will take you to that game. If you decide to purchase that game (or anything else) through that link, I’ll receive a small (1-4%) percentage of the selling price. I use this money to pay for hosting for this site and to occasionally obtain games to review.