2016 Gaming: My family’s top games

I am very fortunate in that my wonderful wife and son share the board gaming hobby with me and put up with my constant suggestions to move around pieces of cardboard following arcane rules. Last year was great in terms of family gaming and I wanted to list the games that worked best so that we can look back to appreciate the year that was and hopefully provide some helpful suggestions to other families out there.

Alex’s Top 5 Games of 2016

My wife Alex likes a great variety of games with a preference towards lighter gameplay not influenced by luck (good luck pitching a dice game to her). We play together quite a bit both as a couple and as part of larger groups and she is always a formidable opponent to be aware of. Below are her top 5 games of the past year with a bit of her own comments thrown in using her favourite orange.

#5 – My First Stone Age (39 plays)

It probably comes as no surprise that we do lots of our gaming all together, so there is some understandable overlap.

Building prehistoric huts through a mix of memory / worker placement mechanisms really is fun for the whole family and it allowed us to spend some very enjoyable time together.

It becomes especially fun when, while the kid is going for their buildings (and you don’t want to mess with them) – it allows for some good-natured competitive shenanigans between adults.

Never overstaying its welcome and coming with delightfully chunky components – this is the only game that appears on all three of our Top 2016 lists :).

Alex says: “It’s a fun family game that never feels too childish”

#4 – Patchwork (14 plays)

Patchwork occupies a very specific niche in our gaming as a couple (you can check out our Top 10 list for that specifically here). It offers satisfying, smart gameplay that is not overly dependent on chance in a very short time. The adorable presentation and the spatial / tactile enjoyment of placing patches on a quilt make it a great game for us and I’m not surprise to see it on Alex’s list.

While the quilting theme had us doubting it initially – this really became a go-to option for us when we want a short game as a part of a weeknight. I also concede that my ass gets kicked with disturbing regularity here as Alex seems to find the kind of balance in her tactic that eludes me.

Alex says: “A really fun two-player game that plays out differently every time”

#3 – Telestrations (11 plays)

Alex is a very social person and so majority of the games that she likes fall into the party variety.

Telestrations has been a very enjoyable discovery for us late this year and has immediately become a mainstay of our get-togethers.

Due to the poor overall art ability in our friend group – sketching out clues usually produces hilarious results, so this game hits the table often with lots of laughter usually following. It works equally well during dedicated board game nights as a filler between heavier games.

Alex says: “A game that makes your cheeks hurt with all the laughter from the ridiculous sketches people come up with”

#2 – Pandemic: Legacy (16 plays)

Alex might be into light gaming, but both of us were greatly committed to saving the world over 2016.

I personally thought Pandemic: Legacy is a revelation in terms of the bold steps it took and what it did with the relatively simple mechanisms of the original. One of the things that impressed me most is that towards the end of the campaign, the rules of the game became considerably complex, yet these were introduced in such a gradual and logical way that it rarely felt overwhelming. Both of us were really looking forward to our monthly plays of this and going through it together was a really cool experience filled with triumphs and crushing defeats.

Alex says: “A game full of awesome surprises. Feels like a TV series that keeps you on the edge of your seat and you get to write the season finale!”

#1 – Codenames / Codenames: Pictures (93 plays)

I was not surprised to see this on the top of Alex’s list as this is a game that combines social aspects of games with both strategic and creative thinking. Oh, and it’s about as approachable as games get – explaining how the rules work takes under 5 minutes and you’re off matching wits!

Both the word and pictures versions of this offer very different experiences that are distinctly enjoyable in their own right. And the intricate web of logical connections each game presents extends its replayability far beyond that of Dixit, which occupied a similar spot for us last year.

I have to grumble a little bit here because Codenames became such an automatic choice for us in many situations that I feel it’s taking play time away from other games, but this, not being my list, is really not the place for it :).

Alex says: “A challenging but really fun game with infinite replayability”

Alan’s Top 5 Games of 2016

My son Alan is turning 4 soon. He used to “help” me with lots of games earlier, including participating in Dungeon Roll and Friday outings but last year was the first time when he really came into his own as a gamer and developed some preferences that I am happy to share with you.

#5 – My First Carcassonne (36 plays)

We had a curious experience with My First Carcassonne. I find that Alan wanted to play this game very early on and grasped the mechanics of it quite quickly (take a tile, place the tile). It really helps that there is no wrong way to place a tile by the way.

However, the understanding of the tactics on how to do well in it really only came towards the end of the year, when he was closer to turning 4. For some reason the concept of “closing off a road” took a while to sink in as something to strive towards.

However, this was the first success we had with introducing a kid version of a modern classic and even now, with the selection being pretty big, it still gets picked from time to time. Separate props for excellent components – chunky cards and big, easy to grasp meeples. Competitive nature of it allowed for some good conversations about weighing “helping others” vs. benefit to self and sportsmanship in general.

#4 – Hoot Owl Hoot (32 plays)

In this game you are drawing cards to move a bunch of little owls towards their nest, racing against time to get them home before the sun comes up and they lose their way. It’s striking how similar this game is to Candy Land (the principle of “going to the next available spot of colour X” is there and so is the random generation of the colour). However, because the game is co-operative and you are moving several owls as a team instead of just your own – there is an immediate dimension of strategy and as an adult it is way better of an experience than Candy Land.

The colours allowed us a good opportunity to reinforce some of the vocabulary (extra helpful because Alan is learning several languages at once) and the tension of saving the little owls always makes things nice and dramatic.

#3 – Bullfrogs (25 plays)

This is probably the most unexpected entry on this list as Bullfrogs is not really a kids’ game (the official recommendation is 8+). This nice Kickstarter recreates a battle between opposing frog armies to claim as many lily pads as possible by placing your frogs on these and removing the opponent’s.

The rules as presented are too complex for the little ones, but the theme is extremely appealing and with a few simplifications it worked very well. (In case you’re wondering about the simplifications – we play by drawing a random card instead of picking one of three, without sabotage and without any extra scoring rules).

The frog meeples and the appealing art really sell this game and it works great with a shortened duration (we usually cut the intended 10-card deck in half to keep the game at 15-20 min to be mindful of the attention span). While it might have been unexpected, the “frog game” became a welcome mainstay on our gaming table.

#2 – Ticket to Ride: First Journey (18 plays)

Continuing the “kid version of an adult classic” we arrive at the Target-exclusive kiddie remake of Ticket to Ride. Seeing how my son shares a name with the creator of the original and loves trains – this was a no-brainer. Getting this game in Canada was not easy (had to ask a friend from States to bring it for us) but was it ever worth the effort! The changes from the adult version (easier routes of length 1-4, only random draw of cards) are smart and conductive to quicker and easier play – in fact it’s surprising how similar the game plays to the full version.

Despite the 6+ age recommendation, our 3-year old grasped the rules very quickly (we play shortened games until 4 completed tickets, not 6 and ignore the “coast to coast” rule). Both the strategic decision-making and spatial thinking involved are great for the kid’s development. As an added point it offered a great primer into major North American cities.

I can see this one staying one of Alan’s favourites for a while.

#1 – My First Stone Age (39 plays)

I am really running out of good things to say about My First Stone Age after it being on mine and my wife’s lists. It’s worker placement that is extremely easy to grasp for a young kid (the box says 5 but it’s being overly cautious). It’s got giant wooden mammoth tusks and arrowheads. It’s got a memory mechanic that miraculously does not get in the way of fun and actually enhances it.  It lasts a tight 15 minutes keeping attention. It is played out on a colourful, well-illustrated board. It teaches about losing and winning (or rather you as an adult do. Alan loves this game and I am always happy when he chooses to play it.

I never played the “real” Stone Age and surprisingly, despite loving this game it did not make me interested in trying the adult one. I am, however, truly grateful for the experiences it allowed me to share with my son and I look forward to lots more forgetting where the dang dog tile is as I am being upstaged by a pre-schooler in prehistoric hut-building.

So all in all – 2016 was a blast to play games with my awesome family and I’m sure 2017 will bring lots new games to our table! I can’t wait to tell you how it goes.

Oh and Alan also plays Lord of the Rings LCG with me. I’ll let you know how in the world that works in his little brain if I ever figure it out.

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