Life board game playing piece

Photo via Will Folsom / Flickr (CC-BY)

Try these unconventional favorites during your next family game night.

Family game nights deserve to be met with more enthusiasm and less groaning. But it’s high time we all admit that the old standbys of our childhoods are tired—and ultimately not all that fun.

Candyland, Monopoly, Life… I grew up on many of these so-called classics, and it scared me away from board game culture for decades. I thought every game had to be a multi-hour (or in the case of Monopoly, multi-day) affair with complicated rules and next to no fun. (Jesus Christ, who thought Chutes and Ladders was a good idea?)

But there’s been a resurgence in board game culture in recent decades, leading to a wealth of options easily adaptable for small groups and families. Combine that with a plethora of getting-started videos on YouTube that take away the angst of reading through a giant rule book and user ratings on sites like BoardGameGeek, and all of a sudden finding the right game for the right group is as easy as Connect Four.

Below, we’ve collected 10 of the best board games for families (with a few card games mixed in) that are great for small groups, including younger players. Almost all have a play time of less than an hour, so you can mix and match or squeeze in one more round before bedtime.

1) Acquire

Play this instead of: Monopoly
Recommended ages: 12+
Number of players: 3-6
Time to play: 90 minutes
BoardGameGeek rating: 7.4

Take the grid mechanics of Battleship, the economic savvy of Monopoly, and the turbulence of the stock market, and you have Acquire, the game of building, growing, and investing in hotel chains. Gameplay is pretty simple: Players just take turns placing tiles on a grid, starting and merging hotel chains according to some simple rules. It might sound a little dull to the younger crowd, but it’s a good way to teach tweens about investment, and there’s plenty of math involved to keep those skills sharp too.

2) Carcassonne

Play this instead of: Battleship
Recommended ages: 8+
Number of players: 2-5
Time to play: 30-45 minutes
BoardGameGeek rating: 7.4

This peaceful tile-based game from Z-Man requires no reading and very little math, making it ideal for young minds. Simply go around the table placing tiles that have fields, land, and roads on them to build a kingdom of cities and farms. Like in dominos, like types have to line up with like, which is a good way to help hone spatial reasoning. Some of us (ahem) still struggle to dial in the strategy needed for really dominating the scoreboards with farmers, so it’s a good thing it’s a different game every time you sit down to play.

3) Unexploded Cow

Play this instead of: Operation
Recommended ages: 12+
Number of players: 2-6
Time to play: 25 minutes
BoardGameGeek rating: 6.1
“Europe. Summer. 1997.
“You have discovered two problems with a common solution: mad cows in England, and unexploded bombs in France.”

That’s the hilarious backstory of Unexploded Cow, a dice and card game in which you collect cows in a herd and roll the die to see which cows explode, giving you profits from the grateful towns in France. Just watch out for the sneaky spy cows, and whoever has the most money at the end wins.

Best of all, Cheapass Games designed the game to be played with cards and tiles you can print for free (but the deluxe edition released after a Kickstarter in 2012 has some pretty fantastic art).

4) Takenoko

Play this instead of: Life
Recommended ages: 8+
Number of players: 2-4
Time to play: 45 minutes
BoardGameGeek rating: 7.4

The fact that the Game of Life is a tedious and dull “adventure” motivated solely by a job and children and that sees players at the mercy of uncontrollable spins might be accurate, but it’s far from fun. So ditch the reality and go feed pandas instead.

In Takenoko, each player tries to achieve certain objective cards by growing different types of bamboo or feeding a roaming panda different varieties. You expand the territory, irrigate for farming, fertilize soil, and so forth, so there’s still a true-to-life feeling to it. Heck, there’s even a different outcome for each roll of the weather die. Younger players will love the adorable panda, and grownups will appreciate the escape from the anxiety of having to negotiate another salary.

5) King of Tokyo

Play this instead of: Yahtzee
Recommended ages: 8+
Number of players: 2-6
Time to play: 30 minutes
BoardGameGeek rating: 7.3

Admit it: The only fun part of Yahtzee is the loud crack of a half dozen dice raining down on your dining room table. But wouldn’t it be better if you threw some goofy monsters into the mix too? Enter King of Tokyo.

This one’s a king-of-the-hill–style game that pits players against one another as they roll dice to dole out attacks, slowly heal, or rack up victory points. First player to 20 victory points—or the last monster standing—wins. To keep things interesting, there’s a full deck of special ability cards that you can buy with energy tokens, and the board opens up another spot in Tokyo for groups of five or more.

6) Codenames

Play this instead of: Charades
Recommended ages: 14+
Number of players: 2-8
Time to play: 15 minutes
BoardGameGeek rating: 8.0

Lay out 25 cards in a five-by-five grid, then divide the group into two teams. Each team will designate a “spymaster,” who will look at the legend to determine which words in a 25-word array they’re trying to get their teammates to guess, then give one-word clues to help them try to get there. It’s like Password, sort of, but with the added stress of an “assassin” word hiding among the rest that you have to avoid at all costs. First team to guess all of their words—without hitting the assassin—wins.

Three things keep this game fresh and fun for families: 1) With hundreds of double-sided cards and four different sides to each key card, there are practically endless iterations of this game. 2) English, being the tricky language that it is, complicates matters somewhat with homophones and words that double-agent as different parts of speech. So while your spymaster might think that “verbs” is a perfectly cromulent clue for “sprint,” “cook,” and “perk,” you might be thinking of the cell service provider, a chef, and a bonus instead. 3) Some people’s trains of thought just don’t run on the same tracks as others’. You’ll have to figure out if your teammates are prone to overanalysis or hyperliteral translations before you accidentally lead them astray.

Psychology, etymology, and a spy thriller all in one? Who can resist?

7) Quiddler

Play this instead of: Scrabble
Recommended ages: 8+
Number of players: 1-8
Time to play: 30 minutes
BoardGameGeek rating: 6.0

People who make a living as editors enjoy the old board game standby, but we understand how its appeal might start and stop with that particular demographic. Quiddler, played with cards instead of tiles, takes some of the struggle out of the equation by asking players to come up with words using the letters in their hand. First player who can use all of his or her letters goes out, triggering a last round for everybody else. Repeat with additional hand limits, from three all the way up to 12. (Golf rules, so you’re stuck with the points in your hand, and lowest score wins.)

Because you can divide nine cards up into three three-letter words, it’s a fine way to build kids’ vocabularies. Set a higher minimum word length for the adults to level the playing field, or just use a handful of cards to teach kids about anagrams (rats, tars, star, arts) and a different way of looking at things.

8) Telestrations

Play this instead of: Pictionary 
Recommended ages: 12+
Number of players: 4-8
Time to play: 30 minutes
BoardGameGeek rating: 7.1

We are universally terrible at drawing, and that humor makes games like Pictionary somewhat hilarious regardless of the company. But in Telestrations, you complicate matters by introducing a Telephone-esque level of confusion to the equation, which amplifies the hilarity tenfold.

Each player starts with a prompt and a dry-erase notepad. Doodle your word, then pass the pad to the player to your left. They have to guess what you drew and write down that word, which in turn becomes the doodle prompt for the person on their left. Once the notepad gets all the way back around, marvel at exactly how far from the original prompt players got. (To adapt this family-friendly fun for a night in with the college buddies, use Cards Against Humanity cards as prompts instead.)

If you stick with simpler words, there’s no reason younger kids might get in on the fun too, but either way, you’re in for an evening of fun, laughter, and occasional jabs at your plans to go to art school.

9) Kodama: The Tree Spirits

Play this instead of: Uno
Recommended ages: 13+
Number of players: 2-5
Time to play: 20-40 minutes
BoardGameGeek rating: 7.1

Do you like My Neighbor Totoro? Then you’ll love this gorgeous card game about growing trees and making forest sprites happy. The mechanics are as simple as matching like items, but the age recommendation here is based on the relative difficulty added by the delicate nature of placing cards without overlapping with others and the strategy of fulfilling certain objective cards.

It’s all the zen of gardening with none of the mess.

10) Superfight

Play this instead of: Cards Against Humanity
Recommended ages: 5+
Number of players: 3-10
Time to play: 30 minutes
BoardGameGeek rating: 6.1

As hilarious as it is to play the NSFW party standby with your friends over a few beers, that one’s probably best left on the shelf when little kids or grandparents are involved. Its SFW predecessor, Apples to Apples, is moderately good fun of exactly the same format, but both games can ultimately be cracked by understanding the sense of humor of your fellow players better than anyone else.

For a different sort of competitive spirit, try Superfight, which pits fictional characters against each other in battles that their human players must defend and promote with compelling rhetoric. Sure, it promotes a certain upping of the bullshit quotient, but think of it as a study in embracing creativity instead.

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