The good games guide

They can make the difference between peace on earth and Christmas hell.

Buying a game is a serious business. Care should be exercised, especially when dealing with the expensive kind: after all, you can't always see what you're getting. Too often much of what should have been spent on the inside of the box has been spent on the outside, and the instructions seem to have been written by out-of-work video manual writers.

The other danger is the effect they can have on your guests. Christmas is a stressful time. People are thrown together, and games, like group therapy - can bring out the worst. My parents used to end up pelting each other with plates and mince pies over Monopoly - only when I was older did I realise this was not part of the rules. So consider carefully: your choice of game could make the difference between peace of earth and an almighty ding-dong.

VERBAL GAMES

Verbal and communicative skills are life skills, so games involving them can be particularly stressful. In Scattergories (MB Games, pounds 24.99, two to six players, age 10+) you have to race against the clock to think up things beginning with a letter turned up on a 20-sided die and belonging to a given category. The 144 categories include things that are sticky, things found in the fridge and famous females. (Rating: q)

ASAP (Lagoon Games, pounds 4.99, two or more players, age 8 to adult) runs on similar principles. There are two piles of cards, one of letters and one of subjects. The first to call out an answer wins the category card, the one with the most cards wins. Unfortunately, in my experience, the same person wins all the time - the fastest. (Rating: n)

Pocket Junior Scrabble (Spear's, two to four players, pounds 9.25, ages 5-10) is a neat little pocket-size travel pack of the well-known game so often spoilt by adults who have memorised long lists of weird three-letter words like dzo. The magnetic board contains two games, one of them Scrabble with a simplified system of scoring and the other a game matching letters. (Rating: q,)

Outburst! (Parker, pounds 34.99, two adult teams) was noisy and chaotic as people compete to yell out names of things belonging to an announced category. If what you yell out isn't on the marker's list tough luck, it doesn't count. Being the marker's not easy and people are always claiming they yelled something you never heard. (Rating: d,)

Taboo (M&B, pounds 23.99, four or more players) is like charades but without the physical embarrassment. You have to explain to your team a word on a card without using certain specified key words. When I played it the women were better at it and the men resented it. (Rating: d,)

In Pictionary (Parker, pounds 29.25, three to 16 players, age 12 to adult) you draw pictures to try and communicate a word to your team. Can get very noisy especially if the team can't get it right! The timer didn't make a sound, so you had to keep an eye on it. (Rating: d,)

Poserbility (Paul Lamond, pounds 14.99, four or more players in two teams, age 8+) was easy to follow and the timer had a noisy bell. A "sculptor" in each team arranges members of the opposite team in a position depicting what it says on a card and their own team has to guess what is being depicted. Much fun and hilarity. By picking out cards beforehand it would be a good children's party game, too. (Rating: d,).

QUIZZES

The king of quizzes must surely be Trivial Pursuit in its many guises, of which Genus III (Parker Games, pounds 33.99, two to six players) is the latest. The word "trivial" is a clue to its success. You needn't feel threatened if you don't know the answer. And don't forget you can always tell the sad character who always wins that knowledge mustn't be confused with intelligence. (Rating: q )

Too many of the lateral thinking puzzles forming the basis of Mindtrap (Spear's, pounds 17.99, two players or teams) are familiar old chestnuts. Although the whole basis of such puzzles is nitpickiness, we found ourselves arguing over a couple of the answers which were clearly wrong. For the newcomer, however, it might prove fun as it is a comprehensive collection of lateral puzzles. (Rating: q,)

Soccer Trivia Quiz (Lagoon Games, pounds 4.99, two players or teams, age 7 to adult) has delightful footballogical questions. A real trivia question is one which is factual, offbeat and whose answer has no possible significance other than to amuse. Which Scottish football result does an announcer dread most? (Answer: Forfar four - East Fife five!) (Rating: n,)

Race Around Britain (Ravensburger, pounds 19.99, two to six players, age 8- adult) and Explore Europe (Ravensburger, price??, two to six players, age 10 to adult) use geography as a source of questions. Both are educational without labouring the point and the children enjoyed playing. (Ratings: q,)

BOARD GAMES

I pondered You Be The Judge (Spear's, pounds 16.99, two players or teams, aged 12 to adult, ) with Judge Stephen Tumim. You have to second-guess the judgements of juries in cases whose key facts are given. Our learned judgement was that it wasn't always clear in what year and what part of the world the cases were being judged and therefore which laws applied. Unfortunately I suspect our legal system is still too arbitrary to form the basis of a fair board game. (Rating: q,)

In Lottery (Paul Lamond, pounds 9.99, two or more players, age 8+) skill and luck are employed to win pounds 10 million in cash, then lose it. As in life, getting rid of it wasn't as easy as you'd expect. Danny (8) and Julie (9) got rather confused at the large sums involved and had difficulties grasping the principles at first but enjoyed playing as a family. (Rating: n,)

GAMES WITH GADGETS

In Labyrinth (Ravensburger, pounds 14.99, age 8+) a move alters the shape and connectivity of the maze. Beautifully crafted with high quality artwork, it should last, as should interest in it. Both children and adults seem to find it intriguing. (Rating: q,)

Uno Stacks (Spear's, pounds 6.99, two or more players, age 8-adult). Plastic slabs stacked in layers of three to make a tower are rearranged according to the roll of a die. The first person who topples stack ends the game and the player on their left wins. Julie (9) and Danny (8) loved this game and played it over and over. (Rating: d,)

Giant Mousie Mousie (Spear's, pounds 8.99, two to five players, age 6-adult) is even more fun that the original Mousie Mousie. The children gleefully dubbed it Ratty Ratty. The Mice squeak when hit with the dustbin lid and have detachable tails so they don't snap in rough play. A rowdy game of quick reactions. (Rating: d,)

Marble Maze (Lagoon Games, pounds 12.99, age 3+). Consists of a beautifully boxed set of tiny glass marbles and wooden pieces which can be arranged into simple or complicated runs. Danny enjoyed the Starter Set but I wished we'd been testing one of the two larger sets. Ordinary size marbles do not fit. (Rating q,)

Little horrors liked the noisiness of Atmosfear, The Harbingers (Spears, pounds 27.99, age 12+) A creepy gatekeeper on video issues forfeits and rewards. The spelling of the title should undo any good done by the spelling games. (Rating d, )

Pro Action Football (Parker, pounds 29.45, two or more players, age 8+) is a great improvement on Subbuteo. In Subbuteo you had to flick roly-poly players to move the ball. The players used to fly further than the ball. In this game you twiddle the player to orient him, then bang him on the head to make him kick the ball. The harder you bang, the further the ball goes. Soccer managers should love it. Danny (8) loved it, as did his dad, a football referee. (Rating: q,)

Ask Zandar (M&B Games, pounds 34.95, age 9+; batteries not supplied) is designed for little girls. Wave your hands over the electronic genie and he answers your questions. The American spelling and orientation of the questions (Will I go to the prom with a geek?) didn't put Julie off, but then she's nine. The answers make sense irrespective of context. I was relieved to find she didn't believe the genie was really answering her questions. Her mother assured me it would prove a nine-day wonder. (Rating n, )

Not so the Barbie Dress Up Game (pounds 8.75, for two-four girls aged 5+). Before they discover boys and Take That, I was shocked to learn, some girls' fantasies revolve around Barbie dolls. The aim of this game is to win the most beautiful accessories to enhance your Barbie doll's glamorous outfit: shoes, handbag, necklace and hair slides. Given that the trinkets were little lumps of plastic I thought this was a loser. Not so. Julie loved it. Which only goes to show what I've known since I was a boy, that girls have great imaginations - and bad taste! (Rating n)

ADULT GAMES

Adults have no problem with taste. They play adult games such as those in the Adult Drinking Games Compendium (Lagoon Games, pounds 4.99, age 18+). This compendium of nine drinking games slips into the pocket for taking down the Dog and Duck. In case you've had a few you'll be relieved to know the games are easy to pick up. Ibble Dibble and Fuzzy Duck were voted best. (Rating: d,)

Pass Out (Paul Lamond, pounds 15, two to four players) is a game based on the lore of drinking (players having to read out tongue twisters when they land on pink elephants and so on). However, in case you think the game gives the wrong Christmas message, a disclaimer puts you straight: it says it is not intended to be played to the accompaniment of alcoholic beverages. Could be fun late on Boxing Day night or New Year's Eve at 12.15. (Rating: n,)

PUZZLES

Christmas can be too noisy and the soul needs quiet time for itself away from all the bonhomie and the interruptions of others pipping one at the post in competitive games. Bonding with a Rainbow Puzzle Ball (Funtime, price?) in a quiet corner could be the answer. Rearranging the colour panels on its surface is supposed to massage the meridian points of your palms to soothe stress. I found 300 Tangrams (Lagoon Games, pounds 10.99) more calming. The accompanying book of hundreds of patterns to make with the seven tiles is beautifully produced and has a timeless quality about it, but I did think the pieces ought to have been in a better material. (Puzzle Ratings: q,)

Jigsaws have always seemed to me a bit of a con. Someone cuts a picture into lots of pieces and charges you to put it back together again. At least The Inspector Morse Mystery Jigsaw Puzzle game (Paul Lamond Games, pounds 8.99, teen to adult) has the ulterior motive of solving a detective mystery. Forensic foreplay consisted in assembling 550 pieces without the aid of picture or pathologist then scouring it for clues. It was all very realistic: I found Morse's conclusion just as unconvincing as on TV. If you don't like Morse there are versions involving Taggart and that new boy Cracker. (Rating: q,)

KEY

Noise levels: q - quiet, n - noisy, d - disturb the neighbours

- almost irritatingly inoffensive

- tread carefully

- have a Relate counsellor on hand

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