Games: What to play on cold winter evenings

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The Independent Online
Winter is a stressful time. The cold weather may throw families together on their own resources for a protracted period of unstructured time. What can be done to bind the disparate group together? What means can be found to pass the time less painfully? In the old days we played party games. Now we are so out of touch with our creativity and have so little leisure time that games and pastimes have to be expensively packaged for us. Choosing the wrong sort of game can be more distressing than de- stressing. The trick is to match the game to the company. Is the game for adults only, or could children be included? Is it a strategy game for two, or a rip-roaring team game? Is it a game of skill or of chance? Could it lead to board rage?

Games of knowledge and skill, for example, are often riskier with relative strangers than games of chance, especially if one of the players is too competitive. There always seems to be an Uncle Eno figure, who, mistaking Trivial Pursuit for a game of knowledge, has memorised all the answers. The compendiousness of his knowledge in this very narrow range makes him feel good, but it ruins the game for the rest of us.

Because of the element of randomness involved, the Uncle Eno strategy is doomed with My First Animal Memory Game (2-8 players, 3+ years, Ravensburger, RRP pounds 6.99) in which you shuffle paired cards and place them face down on the table. Players take it in turns to turn over pairs in an attempt to find a matching pair. If they don't the cards are replaced face down. The aim is to build up a picture and remember what is where. The photos (as you'd expect) are much more realistic than the usual artist's impressions, which helps when the aim is also to familiarise you with animals. Harry (31/2) and Sarah (4) played it together quite contentedly while Lucy (23/4) enjoyed simply pairing up their cards on her own. Could this game help restore the concentration and attention span so undermined by children's television? (Rating: p, Z)

Stacrobats (Balancing skill for 1-4 players, 5+ years to adult, Ravensburger, RRP pounds 6.99). Players are allotted a lot of plastic acrobats to pile on a pylon without its overbalancing. The formation gets increasingly rickety as the game proceeds. Sue (37) looks forward to playing it without the help of Sarah (3) who took too much delight in the structural collapse occasioned by her as yet unperfected balancing skills. I thought it might also be a good way to test hand-steadiness in surgeons or in drinkers (the tippler's topple-test). (Rating: f, v)

In Uno Slam (Card game, 2-6 players aged 7+, Spear's, RRP pounds 15: batteries not included) players match cards by number and colour in a race against time. The hecticity can be varied by adjusting the electronic timer. The attraction for children is the excitement, but I look forward to using it to demonstrate how even a little alcohol slows reaction times. (Rating: ff, v)

The aim in Pocket Money (Board game for two to four players aged 6+, Jumbo Games, pounds 14.99) is to save pounds 15 towards buying a bike while buying an item from each of four shops. Once I got over the uncharitable thought that you could save as much in real money by not buying the game at all, I found it easy to follow. The children enjoyed it while exercising their money-handling skills. Such misery is caused to people by not having been taught proper money-skills that I welcome this game. Indeed I look forward to an adult version to help you acquire through non-threatening play the necessary skills to juggle PAYE, VAT and tax self-assessment. (Rating: f, v)

If the real world is too harsh for young innocents, there's always Enchanted Forest (two to six players, Ravensburger, age 6+, for two to six players, RRP pounds 9.99), a quiet, thoughtful game children can play alone or with adults. The artwork is solid and attractive and the instructions are easy to follow. You have to travel through the forest finding three treasures asked for. Girls may enjoy this more than boys - it's fairy-tale stuff: more for Walter than Dennis the Menace. (Rating: p, Z)

Game of Knowledge (University Games, Kids International, about pounds 22.99) is billed as "the educational game for children and their parents" and has a lot to commend it. It enables parents to participate in their children's education as well as facilitating learning through play. Each card has a question for a 10-15-year-old and one for an over-16. This levelling makes it fairer for children to play it with their parents. The questions deal with factual information from everyday life (questions on nature, media, our world, sports, science) rather than with trivia - and yet all of us who played it enjoyed it. (Rating: f, v)

X is for the UneXplained (two to six players aged 14+, Lagoon Games, RRP pounds 9.99) is a board game based on paranormal trivia. But it's not just for X Files enthusiasts. I derived far more pleasure from scoffing at the "facts" and tall stories than any sci-fi addict could possibly get from believing in them. Unfortunately this sharawaggi sticks in the mind like a burr. How will I ever forget that Kenji Urada met his death in 1981 in a Japanese factory when a robot mistook his head for a component that needed tightening? (Rating: p, Z)

I enjoyed Brain Strain (two or more players in teams, Lagoon, RRP pounds 19.99), but then I would, wouldn't I? Lateral puzzles may not be watertight as puzzles, but as they involve creative thinking, finagling and the misleading use of words they are good for breaking the ice at parties. How many animals of each species did Moses take on the Ark? Answer: None, it was Noah. Unfair!, you cry. But so is life. All the Funfair of the unfair! (Rating: f, v)

Ratings key: p = quiet, f = noisy, ff = very noisy.

Game rage risk: Z = almost irritatingly inoffensive, v = tread carefully, vv =have a friendly Relate counsellor on hand.

Chris Maslanka's survey will conclude next week.