Picking the best games to play with kids can be hard. What we think of as 'simple' games can be surprisingly tricky for the little ones to wrap their heads around, with even winning or losing becoming be a learning moment. I bought a lot of games when our kids were younger. I got a lot wrong. I soon realised that I wanted specific things from kids games and that were hard to find. Eventually I settled on this sort of 'checklist' when looking at games for younger families:
- Decisions: I want a game that involves decisions
- Short: Short games are a must, especially with younger kids, and knowing your child's attention span is key in picking the right games.
- Theme: Often kids will want to play the idea of a game. They want to play the theme, not so much the game. The two want to work together seamlessly.
Zac and I are both parents and wanted to share some of what we have learned, broken up across different age groups.
Games for Kids age 2 to 3
With younger kids games are more about play than rules. Games that work well need to be durable, simple and open to play however your child wants. Big and durable components are a must. There are not many games in this category, but a lot of the games in Haba’s “My Very First” range are great. We have a few different games that offer different experiences.
My First Orchard
Games for Kids age 3 to 4
This is where things can start to develop into games that have a few more rules, or a structure where the game can be played without the rules being completely ignored. This is also where we found we needed to listen to their developing vocabulary and still know when to put the rules aside and let the tiles of Dragomino become a road.
What I look for are games with decisions that matter, something where I, as an adult, can manipulate the odds just enough to ensure the game is fun, and not one sided. I like a game that lets us practice basic counting, addition and (if I'm feeling advanced), subtraction. No text on cards or the board is an advantage, with icons and pictures a must.
There is a lot of development between 3 and 4 so choose the games that work well for your child and what engages them.
This is a newer game, released off the back of Kingdomino (which I will talk about later). It is simple, has beautiful components and it will keep hitting your table for a few years to come. Deciding which domino tile to pick, and where to place it to get your dragon eggs is a good puzzle for learning minds. Flipping the egg tokens to see if they hatched dragons is not 'win or lose' - if they don’t you get a dragon, the player gets to take the delightful wooden Mother Dragon and giving you first choice next turn.
Animal upon Animal
Another Haba game, this classic involves stacking animals onto a central pile. It is a race to get rid of all your own animals, and not knock over the central pile. Honestly this game is fun with adults too. This is the first dexterity game on our list, and shouldn’t be underestimated.
This is a great little tetris style puzzler, and being able to play together is a great way to get kids into the game and keep the pace light. What I love about Katamino Family is always how quick it is to get the next game going, just like the original Katamino.
Games for Kids age 4 to 5
The life skills from kindergarten and playing together (rather than the 'co-playing' of toddlers and bubs) begin to shine here. Kids start to form a better understanding of rule structure and are beginning to think about the results of their actions. We still play loose on the rules sometimes, especially if someone is tired. The purpose of games is to have fun, and sometimes that means re-arranging the tiles of Patchwork or stopping the game when it is time to move on.
This game blew my mind at how great it was. Each player has a car, you have a race track and you roll dice. Where this game shines is that instead of just roll and move, you roll 6 dice, and choose which to use in what order. This creates a really rich decision space and actually opens up some opportunities for discussion and different strategies. My 4 year old daughter loves it, but she does insist we have two cars each so we can have more choices!
Patchwork (advanced - for young kids)
Games for Older Young Kids 5-7
Honestly, there are a lot to choose from here as this is where the options really open up. They are all an easy recommendation, so dive in and have a look!
Zombie Kids Evolution - The number 1 kids game on Board Game Geek's top 100 children's games. This simple game plays fast and slowly introduces new rules and mechanics each time you play to keep things fresh.
Fruit Punch Halli Galli - Light fast and fun. This card game will raise your Snap skills to the next level. Yep. Try saying that with a straight face. A fun, simple game and has stood the test of time having been in print for over 30 years it.
Catan Junior - Pirate Catan. It might claim to be for kids but it has pirates. Pirates. This introduces a lot of the basics from the wonderful peace destroying family classic Catan.
Valley of the Vikings - The 2019 winner of the Kinderspiel des Jahres Winner (Children's game of the year) Valley of the Vikings is a delight barrel throwing (flicking) game.
Ticket to Ride: First Journey - The children's version of the modern classic Ticket to Ride. With pictures instead of old world city names, and simple destination rules, this is scaled down for a shorter, faster game of TRAINS (as it became affectionately known in our household).