If You Are Buying All Your Games at Toys R Us, You Are Missing Out

For some reason I do not fully understand, there are two worlds of gaming - the Wal-Mart/Target/Toys R Us world of Monopoly and Risk, and the geeky world of strategic gaming.

It used to be that the strategic gaming world was just too complicated and arcane for prime time.  I once spent a whole summer playing through a game called "War in Europe" from SPI.  It had a 42-square foot map of Europe, thousands and thousands of counters, hundreds of pages of instructions, and simulated WWII in weekly turns.

However, there is now a whole slew of games in the strategic arena, mostly from Europe, that are very accessible.   A number are not much harder to learn than Risk but are more fun and play a lot faster.  Unfortunately, few of these have migrated to mainstream stores, so you may be missing them.  Here are a few my family plays that are excellent places to start.  I have put them in approximate order of complexity, from low to high.

[By the way, don't have a family or friends?  Your in luck!  At least 3 of the games below have very high quality iPad game apps with good to very good AI competitors]

  1. Ticket to Ride. Very easy to learn.  Even visiting kids get the idea immediately.  This is a railroad line building game.  Start with the original North American version, it is the least complicated.  Also, if you have an iPad, there is a very good game app port of this game.
  2. Small World. This is an absolute freaking classic. Totally fun, pretty easy to learn, fast to play.  Sort of a wargame ala Risk but it doesn't feel like Risk.  Very repayable because the army or race (e.g. dwarves, elves, giants, etc) you play changes each game as special powers are mixed and matched.  As important to taking territories will be recognizing when your race has become senescent and when it is time to start a new race.  If you have an iPad, there is an awesome Small World game app I heartily recommend.
  3. 7 Wonders. A new game that has quickly become a favorite.    This game is typical of many modern strategy games -- there are many ways to score and you only have a limited number of actions, so the trick is figuring out your priorities.  The play rules of this game are dead simple.  The complicated part is deciding what action to take among many alternatives, since the scoring is complicated.  Here is my advice on this game and for many of these games that follow.  Just play the game once.   This is what my kids and I did with 7 Wonders.  They yelled at me at scoring time that they hadn't understood that such and such scored so well or poorly, but they understood it better with one play-through than by any number of times parsing the rules.  This is our current favorite.  Interesting dynamic here as after each card play, everyone passes his or her whole hand to their neighbor.
  4. Dominion.  Similar to 7 Wonders in that it is a card game building to victory points.  There is a constant tradeoff of getting victory points now or building up "infrastructure" that will allow more scoring later.  It is more complex than 7 wonders as it has even more options and paths.  I play it with my family but both this and the next game fall out of what are typically called "family" games.
  5. Race for the Galaxy.  Again, similar to 7 Wonders and Dominion, just more complicated.  A planet development game.

Here are some other family accessible games I can't recommend as much

  1. Settlers of Catan. This is a popular strategy classic, and is simple to learn.  My kids think its kind of meh.  It has a diplomacy negotiating element that does not seem to work well in my family for games
  2. Cargo Noir. I have only played this once, so I can't say how it wears.  My kids liked it better than I did.  It is easy to learn, but I thought the strategic options were a bit thin.
  3. Carcasonne.  There are very few games I don't care for, but I have tried this game several times and it just does not click for me.  But it is wildly popular, so what do I know?  A game where you add tiles of roads and cities to try to score based one where you have put your mini people (meeple in euro-game speak).   There is a high quality port of this game on iPad.

Here are some games I really love but are not appropriate for the entry level family

  1. Twilight Struggle - replay the cold war.  My son and I played this and it was awesome, but it took some time to learn and was pretty wonky.
  2. Agricola - one of the reigning kings of hard-core Euro-style strategy games, this game is fairly complicated to learn (not helped by instructions that really need a re-write) and very complicated to master.   The concept -- trying to keep a medieval family alive - bored the hell out of my kids but it is similar to many of the games above in that there are far more ways to score than one can pursue in a turn, and it has a very strong element of balancing immediate returns against investments in the future.   I have never played Puerto Rico but my sense it is in a similar genre.

The Boardgame Geek website is a great place to learn about these games (I have just listed a few of the most popular of literally thousands of games).  Their ranking of top family games is here.  To give you an idea, Monopoly is rates #781 in family games and #7148 overall by their readers (though there is some geek snob factor in this, it really is not a very good game), so you probably have some good games to discover.

PS- Most all of these are on Amazon.


  1. Sol:

    Though I'm not sure everyone would consider them kid-friendly (due to violence, not due to complexity), we are very fond of
    Guillotine and Bang! The former is a humorous game collecting heads in the French Revolution, the latter a terrific spaghetti-western-style card-based shoot out. Both are simple enough to teach to visiting family not particularly into boardgames.

  2. a leap at the wheel:

    Great list. Small world is a great game.

    two more I'd add:

    Santiago - A great game for anyone, but a special bonus for anyone who's ever complained about regularly capture and crony capitalism. Paying off a government actor to benefit your industry is the central mechanic.

    Ra - a bidding game where probability and expected values control the game. Probably a little dry for anyone younger than mid-teenage years.

  3. None:

    Great memories of playing Flat Top during the summer holidays - sneaking my carrier fleets around desperately avoiding detection.

  4. Ian Lippert:

    Twilight Imperium, best board game of all time, what other game has politics, economics, warfare, and technology without favouring one path to victory over others? No game has ever implemented the game dynamics as those that get played out in a full game of TI, even including such computer greats as Civ.

  5. Jens Fiederer:

    I enjoyed "Mr.Jack Pocket Edition", a 2-player game that takes very little space and models the conflict between Sherlock Holmes and Jack The Ripper.

    Also currently playing a game on the web, a bit more in the vein of those old strategy games (not NEARLY as complex as SPI!) at http://www.strategicinitiative.org/docs/home.shtml

    It's an abstract war game on a randomly generated world, played over a 10-day period (although many games are decided earlier).

    This one is free, still in beta, and the rules sometimes change right during the game.

  6. Daran:

    Can recommend http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/24181/imperial. The nice twist is that in the role of investor you shouldn't get too attached to the countries you control. More suited to competent players who understand their own group dynamic.

  7. me:

    Awesome list - while I kept going through, the list of games I was going to mention in this comment dwindled. You managed to hit every single one of the favorites we currently play :)

  8. Brian Dunbar:

    Got into playing 'good' boardgames when I met my wife. That was over fourteen years ago. Our kids grew up playing games like 'Munchkin' and D&D.

    Played Monopoly with my kids last year - my youngest won a copy in a raffle. We all got bored after a thirty minutes when my wife got a lock and was slowly grinding the rest of us into the ground.

    We like

    'Venus Needs Men' - 50s SciFi aliens compete with humanity for control of the planet.

    'Munchkin' - Funny take on D&D.

    'Chrononauts' - Time travel card game.

    And others.

  9. Joe:

    Two games I've had good experiences with:

    Red November -- It's a little unusual in that it's a cooperative game (for the most part). Everyone is a gnome on a submarine and you're trying to save it from sinking.
    We Didn't Playtest This At All -- This is actually a card game, and a pretty silly one at that. Each game lasts about 2 minutes since there are cards like "anyone wearing black loses" or "anyone who says the words 'you' or 'your' from now on loses". It gets old after a while, but it's worth the $10.

  10. Speedmaster:

    I'll check some of these out, thanks. We bought Settlers of C. but never got into it.

  11. Jason:

    I can definitely attest that Carcassone and Ticket to Ride on the iPad are absolutely awesome, especially as Ticket to Ride just got pass and play.

    I'd also recommend MagBlast and Bang! as good "party games" for friends, and Alien Frontiers and The Battle Star Galactica Game as really really good board games.


  12. Bill:

    I like http://www.coolstuffinc.com/ for game purchases. They're competive with Amazon and have half off sales at the end of the year.

    I get to play the games Warren mentions and many others with a local (Phoenix) gaming group I found through Meetup http://www.meetup.com/boardgames-374/

    They have gaming sessions all over the valley almost every night.

  13. Matt:

    Ricochet Robots is a favorite at our place.

  14. Dan:

    Okay - a couple more that I love (Although I have to say I agree that Catan and Ticket to Ride are great recommendations for your list already)

    Blockus - Just LOVE this game. Really easy to learn and anyone can play, but it really forces you to think ahead which is awesome.

    Wits and Wagers - Super fun. I have given this as a a business gift over the years to CEOs or other high level folks that have families and years later I keep getting notes and phone calls telling me how they love it and still enjoy it.

  15. Rob:

    I've wanted to try Khet:

    A sort of Stratego-like strategy board game with lasers. Lasers!!!!

  16. Jesse:

    I'll second the Battlestar Galactica boardgame. The game can be long, but the paranoia of guessing and second-guessing which players are secretly cylons makes for an amazing experience. Also, if the theme's not too off-putting, Chaos in the Old World is a current favorite.

  17. DrTorch:

    We like Dominion in our house. My 8 year old likes it and plays on his own, so it's not hard to learn for many ages.

    Corsaconne- I played it once, wasn't that taken by it.

    Wits and Wagers- Good game, better w/ a larger group. The creators from Northstar held some local events promoting this game. They're pretty good guys. Their other games are worth checking out too.

    If you want a game that's easy to play, and for many ages, try Ravensburger's: Magic Hill. Yes, it's a kid's game, but it's interesting enough that we've kept playing it for years. It's a fallback standard in our house.

    Also, if anyone is interested in an educational board game, specifically re: medieval Europe, I know an excellent one ;).

  18. Doug:

    awesome posting with some great games. "The Geek" is a great site.

  19. Bob Smith:

    I'm a big fan of Titan (the Avalon Hill original), Maharaja, History of the World, Shogun, and Axis & Allies (the Milton Bradley original).

  20. randomscrub:

    I need to add a recommendation for Pandemic - a cooperative game where you all work together to save the planet from ravaging diseases. It's great for easing new people into the hobby, as it's not competitive and it's easy to teach during gameplay. Forbidden Island is a similar family game (though somewhat stripped-down) where the group is attempting to do a grab and go run for treasure on a sinking island - get the goods and get off before you all sink into the depths! At $15 retail, Forbidden Island is hands-down the best value in board gaming out there.

    I'll also second the recommendation for shopping at http://www.coolstuffinc.com/ for games. They beat Amazon on price, so long as you're buying enough to get the free shipping, and they have a decent customer rewards program.

  21. Braden:

    Yeah, my family loves Ticket to Ride, but they'd kill me if I tried to read the whole Agricola rulebook. Pity.

    I have seen Blokus at Walmart, which is a decent game, especially the Trigon version.

  22. Jonathan:

    I don't love Carcasonne, but it's got some strong points. The rules are about as simple as they get ("make sure the picture makes sense", although the scoring can be a bit complicated), and there's almost no setup time. Since you don't like Carcasonne it might not be up your alley, but Talvua is one of my favorites. Like Carcasonne it's a tile placement game, with pretty simple rules and no setup. But it's absolutely beautiful. As you play the game you build a tropical island (using volcanoes!), and the end result is beautiful even if you don't win.

    I can't believe there's been no mention of Power Grid! Power Grid is a game about economics. The game is built around trying to provide power to cities. There are a great number of economical aspects to the game. For example, power plants run off of three different types of fuel, plus one type of plant that uses wind/solar/hydro and requires no fuel. Players buy fuel on a market, and prices go up as demand goes up. The rules are also designed in such a way that the player who is doing best is always put in the worst position, which prevents runaway victories. This way you're never really out of the running until the very end. Contrast this with Settlers where you can lose just based on the location of your starting settlements.

  23. Hasdrubal:

    I just ran across this via Marginal Revolution: http://www.criticalmiss.com/issue10/CampaignRealMonopoly1.html

    Turns out, the actual Monopoly rules say that if you land on an un-owned property and decide not to buy it, the property gets auctioned off, fair game to every player. That should completely change the game and make it much more interesting. I'm going to have to dig up a copy and try it with some friends to see just how much it affects play.

  24. Greg:

    My Euro game experience began with Settlers of Catan, which I bought as an import before it was even released in the U.S. If your family doesn't like the trade and interaction element of the game, consider playing with some optional rules commonly played online. No Trade: players can't trade with each other, only with the bank and via ports. Reverse Robber: players must place the robber on a space with no opponent's settlement, if possible. (Can be played RR7, where this rule applies only on robber movement via rolling 7, or RR, for all moves of the robber.)

    I play Carcassonne with a friend, and enjoy it a lot.

    I've enjoyed most of the games listed here.