Parenting: Clever family games

Games like Dominion, Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne offer family fun when it's cold outside.
David Murphy says newer board games keep kids and parents interested.
January 9, 2012 3:34:16 PM PST
We are entering winter blues territory, that period between New Year's Day and March 1st when families begin to feel a little house-bound. A typical reaction with lots of kids is to dissolve into a kind of after-school mush with a video game controller in their hands. This can go on for weeks and can get a little mind-numbing.

In the Murphy household, we've learned that a great way to fend-off this tendency while encouraging a little winter-doldrums interaction between family members is to turn that last bit of holiday gift money or gift cards into a any of a new wave of non-video games that have become popular in recent years. Even better, these games offer the opportunity for kids and parents to have some fun together without over-taxing the children or boring the adults. I'll talk about three of these, in particular.

Dominion is essentially a point-scoring card game involving a myriad of cards with different powers and functions. A typical game lasts about 30 to 45 minutes. What's neat about this game, other than the nifty artwork on some of the cards, is that each game only makes use of a handful of the deck, meaning that the strategy each time out changes. For example, players may try to steal points and cash from one another in game one, while the next game would see the strategy shift toward sticking other players with junk cards that have a negative value. Along the way, players can choose which types of cards they want to employ and must decided which cards work the best together, given the selection available during a given game. The theme displayed in the artwork and how the cards are labeled suggests a medieval setting ("Marketplace", "Witch", "Moat" and "Chapel"), but this is not Dungeons and Dragons; it's just an inventive card game. BoardGameGeek.com has a nice break down here.

Settlers of Catan is my favorite of the new wave games, and has become popular with grade school kids and college students alike. I like it because to do well, you need to negotiate and befriend the people you are ultimately trying to defeat.

Like Dominion, each game is different, only this time it's because of the way the playing field is constructed. The "board" comes in symmetrical six-sided pieces that are fashioned together in a new way each time out. Point values are also assigned to these pieces randomly and while the object of the game is always the same---being the first to score 10 points---the paths one uses to attain that goal can change. This starts with the very first move, when players choose which part of the board to occupy. Basically, Catan is a vacant land filled with several resources (wheat, sheep, rock, brick and wood) and the players' mission is to acquire enough of these resources in different combinations to allow them to populate the area. Points are scored by building roads, settlements and cities. However, the game is designed so that everyone has a shortage of one resource or another, and winning the game often hinges on how well one can negotiate with his enemies, especially early in the contest, when everyone is short of something. A typical game can last from 45 minutes to an hour. Here's the BoardGameGeek.com break-down for Settlers.

Numbers Game

A drawback with Dominion and Settlers is that they require a minimum of three players to work best, which can be a little difficult to work-out sometimes. Not so with Carcassonne, a game named after an ancient French walled city, but really amounts to a puzzle building game during which players connect pieces, claim territory and score points. Like Catan, players are claiming ground, but doing so by placing pieces next to others in ways that allow them to build farms, roads and castles. One scores points based on how successfully they can accomplish these tasks---but also how well they can "sneak in the back door" and lay claim to the other player's land. One nice thing is that there is very little set-up here, so you can get going almost as soon as you open the box (the clean-up is the harder part, but not too bad). Each game only lasts about 15 or 20 minutes, so it's not very strenuous. This game is more complex than, say, checkers, but far less complicated than the others I've mentioned, so it's a little less mentally taxing. But the game design and play is pretty compelling and a few new strategies occur to players as they move along through several games. BoardGameGeek.com also has the basics on Carcassonne.

Of the three, I would recommend Settlers of Catan first for game-friendly families, followed by Dominion. Carcassonne is the simplest of the three and works well for kids who don't want to be tied down for 90-minutes playing a couple of longer games.

---David Murphy

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