As a board gaming Dad, I’ve had to temper my eagerness to play board games with my sons because, apparently, it takes years for them to grow. Who knew?
While my primary focus has been on enjoying these early years as much as possible (playing lots of trains, trucks, blocks and LEGOs), I couldn’t resist the urge to begin testing the waters with a few games while I wait for them to level up. Here’s a short list of the games that have had the most success at this early age.
My first son, Boden, is about to turn 5 this Summer. My second son, Bennett, turned 1 in March. So at the time of this writing, all of these experiences are about playing with Boden.
What makes a good game for young kids?
- Short Duration & Quick Turns — some kids can sit still and focus longer than others and while Boden can focus pretty well, I’ve found it to be better to keep it quick. Pick games that don’t last too long. 30 minutes is pushing it. And the faster the turns, the better. It’s not fun if he’s not taking his turn, so give him as many turns as possible as quickly as possible. This also helps him learn the system and flow of a particular game, how games work, what to think about each turn.
- Randomness — this levels the playing field and gives your kid a chance to win without you having to handicap yourself. You can play full-out and still lose because of a bad dice roll or luck of the draw. I usually avoid all games where random chance decides the winner, but I’ve found that it’s a great ingredient for when you’re trying to introduce the young ones to games. It keeps the game shallow and whimsical. If you lose, oh well. If you win, congrats! It’s a good tool to keep things light so you can focus a little more on how to play, and how to behave within the game space (taking turns, playing fairly, not cheating, not being a sore loser, etc).
- Distinct Advantages for Smaller People — very few games are capable of this. I’ve only really found one (Pharaoh’s Gulo Gulo), but it’s pretty awesome. In this game you have to reach into a bowl of differently sized wooden balls and remove a specific color ball without knocking over the alarm stick. Despite how hard a grown-up tries, their fingers are just too big. Boden can sneak in, grab a ball, and get out without affecting any of the surrounding balls. You try it and you’re a big clumsy oaf. It feels good for a child to be good at something, and Boden likely won’t be better than his Dad at strategy games for a good while. So give your kid a game they’re better at than you and show them how to lose gracefully.
- Interesting Artwork / Theme — this is a subjective thing, but I think if a game is telling a story and Boden is playing a role, he’s more invested in the game. It’s also just a joy to look at and interact with. He asked if we could play Taluva simply because the box art was attractive to him. Did he understand how to play the game? Not really, but we played with the pieces anyway and he had fun. We just started playing Hive (an abstract game), but it doesn’t seem to capture his attention as well as Pharaoh’s Gulo Gulo or Race to the Treasure.
We haven’t played all the games out there. This is just a list of what has worked for us so far. I’ll try to point out games I hear good things about, but haven’t tried. Here we go!
Great Games for Kids 5 & Under
Animal Upon Animal — Kids love stacking blocks (dexterity). Kids love animals. This is a game where you stack animals. First player to place all of their animals wins. Knock over the tower and you get your animals back. Plays in 5 to 10 minutes. He loves it. Crash!
Pharaoh’s Gulo Gulo — dig your way through colored boulders to unearth the Mummy’s tomb, sneak past the Mummy and steal his treasure without getting caught. A dexterity game with a distinct advantage for little kids with their little fingers.
Sequence for Kids — This game is basically Bingo with animal cards (pattern matching). Not the best game, takes longer than it needs to, and it’s a bit dry, but it was his first board game given to him by his uncle and got him super excited to have a game of his own. He asked us to play this often from age 2 to 4. He only really started to get the hang of the game from age 4 to 5.
Crazy Coconuts — Plastic monkey catapults shooting rubber coconuts into plastic cups (hand eye coordination). I’m too good at it, so I play from farther away. Even then I win most of the time, but everybody who plays this game has fun. One of Boden’s favorites. What little boy doesn’t love shooting projectiles?
Tsuro — Simple, shallow and fast enough for young kids, and they might win despite your best efforts. Place a tile (pattern matching), move your piece along the new path, try to stay on the board as long as possible.
Flick ’em Up! — You flick wooden discs (bullets) around the table with your finger trying to knock over little wooden people (gunslingers and outlaws and deputies). You flick wooden lassoes around the legs of wild stallions and saddle up. There’s so much in here for little boys to enjoy that I’m surprised I haven’t tried to play this with him yet.
Wishlist — games I’m interested in getting for my sons, but haven’t yet.
Crokinole — It’s basically shuffleboard on a round board where you flick little wooden discs around. Easy to teach, easy to learn, easy to play, fast, simple, fun. I might buy them a board for Christmas one of these years, or make one by hand.
Quoridor — Get your pawn to the opposite end of the board. Drop walls in front of your opponent to block his movement. Simple, beautiful, quick, easy to learn.
Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters — Run into the haunted house, bust ghosts, collect treasure, and get out. Everybody works together in this cooperative romp. Fun artwork and cute little ghost meeples.
The Magic Labyrinth — A memory game where you try to navigate a maze, but you don’t know where the walls are until you hit one and you have to start over at the beginning.
Click Clack Lumberjack — Dexterity game where you use little plastic axes to chop the bark off of a tree. Whoever has the most wood at the end wins, I think. Don’t knock the entire tree over? Maybe? Anyway, it looks cute, light, quick and fun.