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19 best family board games: From timeless classics to ingenious newcomers

Fun, easy to grasp and – most importantly – entertaining

Martha Alexander
Thursday 16 December 2021 16:40
<p>These board games sneak some learning into all the fun, making them perfect for some homeschooling </p>

These board games sneak some learning into all the fun, making them perfect for some homeschooling

For some people, board games are a family staple and for others, they are only part of life during rainy holidays. Whatever your style, there are now options on the market for every kind of player.

One of the things that we like about so many games on the market is how they smuggle learning in through the back door. There is so much fun going on that little ones have no idea that their literacy, numeric, verbal reasoning and social skills are getting a proper workout.

How we tested

So, what makes for a brilliant family board game? Well, fun has to be right up there. It also has to be something that is easy to grasp – too many rules and caveats tend to cause issues and ultimately a drift in concentration among younger players. 

And we also think that an addictive game – one that no one ever wants to stop playing – is a pretty good sign. A strong educational leaning is always going to be a plus for parents too, especially for those who are finding homeschooling a challenge.

Games should also be built to last. Poor-quality components that rip, peel, sag or fray easily result in a short lifespan.

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All of the games in our round-up are well made, clever and offer plenty in the way of both fun and learning opportunities. Here are our favourites.

The best family board games for 2021 are:

A Game of Cat and Mouth

Best: Overall

Rating: 10/10

  • Players: 2-5 players
  • Ages: 4+
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Set up: Less than 5 minutes
  • Lasts: 20 minutes

The box says the game is suitable for children aged seven and older, but we have a four-year-old tester who was not only delighted by the entire aesthetic and premise of the game, but she was pretty damn good at it too. It hones dexterity and introduces the concept of game strategy to young minds. It claims to be highly addictive and it is, as well as being utterly infuriating if you’re on a losing streak. We suspect parents to carry on playing this long after their children are in bed – we know this because we did! So clever, so unusual and so much fun.

Pop To The Shops

Best: For five-year-olds

Rating: 9/10

  • Players: 2-5 players
  • Ages: 5+
  • Difficulty: Educational for youngsters
  • Set up: 1 minute
  • Lasts: N/A

With dice, counters and money, this is a brilliant introduction to board games for any youngster. Our four-year-old tester was tickled pink with the pretext of this game, which was to go shopping at one of four shops and buy anything from an ice lolly to a sausage roll.

This is a very sly way of making maths fun for youngsters who think numbers are boring. It is also a brilliant way of working with currency, understanding the exchange element of buying and selling and offering the chance for a spot of role play: “Good morning Mr Greengrocer, please may I have those strawberries?”

Pass the Bomb: The Big One

Best: Literacy game

Rating: 7/10

  • Players: 2-8 players
  • Ages: 8+
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Set up: 2 minutes (You will need 2 x AAA batteries and a screwdriver which are not included)
  • Lasts: N/A

This is the latest game in the popular Pass the Bomb series and the principle is the same: complete tasks before the unstable timebomb detonates in your hands.

It is the perfect game for wordsmiths as three out of the five challenges are to do with literacy – rhyming ability, word arrangement and categorisation are all under scrutiny as well as there being puzzle and dexterity challenges. Can you complete your challenge and pass the bomb on in time? Well, it is trickier than it appears and the anticipation of the explosion makes all the players super jittery. Expect hysterical screaming when the bomb does go off. A brilliant way of getting young people to sharpen their literacy skills without them even realising it.

30 Seconds

Best: For teens

Rating: 7/10

  • Players: 4 players minimum
  • Ages: 12+
  • Difficulty: Challenging
  • Set up: 1 minutes
  • Lasts: N/A

30 Seconds is a game which tests both descriptive skills, comprehension and general knowledge against the clock. A player will select a card on which is written five things – landmarks, celebrities, films, famous brands and more – and they have just 30 seconds to describe them to the other players without saying the actual words in the name or using rhyme to help.

This requires a minimum of four players, which might be a drawback for smaller households, but it is a great game for older kids and teens – especially those who have a decent grasp of pop culture, global affairs and geography. It inspires an air of mild hysteria as players clamour to guess correctly. We especially liked that there was the traditional counter-and-dice element to the game, with players not only racing to get all of the names on their cards guessed correctly, but also to get to the board’s finishing line first.

Bananagrams

Best: For family fun

Rating: 9/10

  • Players: 2-6 players
  • Ages: 12+
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Set up: Less than 2 minutes
  • Lasts: 15 minutes

Okay, we know this isn’t technically a board game – it can’t possibly be because its components all come in packaging the shape and size of a banana. However, its virtue is that it requires no board. That is the whole point. It’s sort of like Scrabble but with a banana theme and no turn-taking.

You’re in a race to use the most squares to form the most words. You’ll find yourself shouting “split”, “peel” and “rotten banana” quite a lot, which is as jolly as it sounds. With younger players the words tend to be shorter and play is slower as they get their heads around both horizontal and vertical word formation, but Bananagrams is a healthy challenge for someone of any generation.

Operation

Best: Classic game

Rating: 8/10

  • Players: 1 or more players
  • Ages: 6+
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Set up: 2 minutes (2 x AA batteries required and not included)
  • Lasts: N/A

Show us a person who doesn’t love Operation and we’ll show you a fantastic fibber. It’s frustrating and noisy but that’s basically the whole point of it. The board is Cavity Sam’s hospital bed, where he lies with a wealth of ailments including a broken heart and butterflies in his stomach – oh and an electrical circuit which all the players are trying not to close. Your job is to operate on Sam by removing each ailment with a pair of tweezers. However, if the metal of your tweezers hits the metal around his problem, then you’ll hear an unholy blare and Cavity Sam’s nose will flash red, indicating that it’s the next player’s turn.

The winner is not the one with the most ailments secured – it is the one whose secured afflictions have the most value. This game is lots of fun, with our seven-year-old tester instantly becoming obsessed. Younger children will be too, but be prepared for their lack of fine motor skills making them poor surgeons.

I Saw it First

Best: Party game

Rating: 9/10

  • Players: 3 or more players
  • Ages: 8+
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Set up: 5 minutes
  • Lasts: N/A

First off, this is such a beautiful-looking game. The board is comprised of six triangles which attach to each other to form a hexagon adorned with intricately illustrated creatures all hiding in plain sight. When it is their turn, a player must pick an animal disk out of a box (if we had to be critical, this was quite flimsy, so we just used the lid instead) and then all players race to find the animal on the board. The first one to see it shouts “I saw it first!” and wins the disc.

The designers of this game have been super crafty and ensured that “memorising” the location of any creature is nigh on impossible. The board is double-sided and can be pieced together in a variety of different ways. The name of the creature is also written on the discs, and we bet that you – children and adults alike – will encounter animals you never even knew existed.

Catan

Best: Strategy game

Rating: 9/10

  • Players: 2-4 players
  • Ages: 12+
  • Difficulty: Challenging
  • Set up: Less than 5 minutes
  • Lasts: 1 hour

Catan is a land that you and your fellow players have just discovered. It is a brilliant place for settlers with plenty of resources. You battle and barter it out for dominance over Catan, aiming to turn small settlements into cities. This is by no means a game of chance: players need to employ fairly complex strategy by thinking ahead and anticipating opponents’ moves. This is a marathon of a game – and by that we mean it will be open and active for actual days on end – and deeply competitive.

We found that one of the main teachings from Catan is how to manage emotions in the face of disappointment. This is definitely one for older children who can concentrate over long periods of time.

Scrabble

Best: Challenging game

Rating: 9/10

  • Players: 2 or more players
  • Ages: 12+
  • Difficulty: Challenging
  • Set up: Less than 5 minutes
  • Lasts: Up to 1 hour

An absolute classic that will never, ever get old. Although young children might enjoy pointing out letters, this is geared towards older kids, teens and, of course, adults of any generation. It is absolutely the perfect game for any budding wordsmiths.

The firing up of competitive instincts which might normally lie dormant is par for the course with Scrabble, especially in bookish families. Expect many, many arguments over what is a real word (“I’m looking that up, that’s ridiculous… oh, right… never knew that…”), but know that it is all part of the fun.

Beano: The Board Game

Best: Nostalgic game

Rating: 8/10

  • Players: 2-6 players
  • Ages: 8+
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Set up: Less than 5 minutes
  • Lasts: N/A

This brand-new game will be a huge nostalgia hit for parents and an introduction to the wayward Bash Street kids for children.

What we love about this board game, which is essentially a map of Beano Town, is that it permits cheekiness and naughtiness – think whoopee cushions and custard pies and hiding from the teacher – which is always exciting for youngsters. The aim of the game is to be the player to achieve the most successful pranks.

It’s vibrantly and humorously illustrated too, and best suited to players aged eight and over, but we do know of slightly younger children who have got the hang of it easily.

Herd Mentality

Best: For big families/gatherings

Rating: 9/10

  • Players: 4-20
  • Ages: 10+
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Set up: Less than 5 minutes
  • Lasts: 20 minutes

If you’ve been brought up to think out of the box and stand out from the crowd, you’ll have some unlearning to do when playing this game. All of the players – up to 20, yes 20 – are asked exactly the same questions at the same time and the aim is to provide the same answer as one another without conferring. You get ahead by thinking alike. When you think alike, you are rewarded with cow tokens – and you need eight to win. If your answer doesn’t match anyone else’s you then get lumbered with the pink cow. This is bad news as you can’t win the game until someone else has taken the pink cow off your hands. Sounds bonkers? It is, but brilliantly so.

Monopoly

Best: For competitive families

Rating: 9/10

  • Players: 2 or more
  • Ages: 8+
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Set up: Less than 5 minutes
  • Lasts: At least an hour

One of the most popular board games of all time, Monopoly is sure to bring out the competitive streak in even the most laid back of players (as well as offering a crash course in economics and capitalist theory). The rules are, essentially, to monopolise the board by buying as much land as you can and building on it, while taxing anyone unfortunate enough to trespass on your property. Luck is involved but so, of course, is strategy.

Addictive and frustrating – it can all get very real, very quickly, not least when you watch your arch-enemy putting more houses on Mayfair while you languish behind bars…

Trivial Pursuit

Best: For general knowledge buffs

Rating: 8/10

  • Players: 2 to 6
  • Ages: 10+
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Set up: Less than 5 minutes
  • Lasts: At least an hour

This is for anyone from about the age of eight or older who collects useless, disparate information and stores it in the corners of their consciousness for years on end. It’s a long-time favourite for family gatherings and essentially involves navigating your way around a board that is characterised by different coloured squares.

Each colour corresponds to a topic – art and literature, say, or sports. You must answer a question which corresponds to that topic from a stack of cards. Each time you answer correctly you collect a wedge. Once you have six wedges you must get back to the centre of the board and correctly answer a question chosen by your teammates to win.

It’s tense, it’s competitive and it involves those around you pouncing on your weakness to stop you from winning. Harsh and brilliant.

Djeco Chess in a Case

Best: For youngsters who love a challenge

Rating: 9/10

  • Players: 2
  • Ages: Any
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Set up: Less than 5 minutes
  • Lasts: Between 10 and 60 minutes

Chess has been around for some 1,500 years and continues to be an enduringly popular game requiring intelligence, skill, poise and the ability to think ahead both for yourself and your opponent. It is a game worth learning as a youngster – but be warned it can become an all-consuming pastime.

We think this Djeco set comes in a case, which is beautifully illustrated with motifs from the game, is the perfect addition to any playroom. It also includes pieces for chess’s less complex cousin, draughts, which is a great way for little ones to get used to the board and the basic premise of chess.

This set is currently out of stock on Amazon but it should be back soon.

Snakesss

Best: For brilliant actors

Rating: 9/10

  • Players: 4 to 8
  • Ages: 12+
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Set up: Less than 5 minutes
  • Lasts: 30 minutes

If you’re good at getting away with telling a porky pie or two this game is for you. It’s all about lying convincingly – being a perfect snake. The premise is simple: as a group, you must discuss a multiple-choice question before voting on the right answers. But there are hidden snakes among the players whose sole job is to convince everyone that a wrong answer is right. It’s cunning, manipulative and sly – and we absolutely love it.

Top of the Pops

Best: For music lovers

Rating: 8/10

  • Players: 4 to 20
  • Ages: 14+
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Set up: Less than 5 minutes
  • Lasts: 20 minutes

For families with teenage – or older – children this game is nothing short of an absolute hoot. You’ll race to name song titles or murder classic tunes by trying to recreate them on a kazoo. This is a high-energy game that is the opposite of peace and quiet. With music from the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, Nineties and Noughties this is truly a multigenerational game for anyone who has a passion for pop.

Dino-Snore-Us

Best: For families with young children

Rating: 8/10

  • Players: 2 to 4
  • Age: 4+
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Set up: Less than 5 minutes
  • Lasts: 20 minutes

This is essentially a race to collect all the eggs from a snoozing T-Rex but there are plenty of obstacles in the way – like landing on a huge footprint which might result in waking the dinosaur and making him (and you) roar. Ideal for children aged four and older, plus grown-ups of course. We love this game for how much education it sneaks in – particularly when it comes to numeracy. It’s well illustrated with bright, colourful components.

Backgammon

Best: Addictive game

Rating: 9/10

  • Players: 2
  • Ages: 10+
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Set up: Less than 5 minutes
  • Lasts: Between 5 and 60 minutes

This version of Backgammon is the perfect introduction to the classic and ridiculously addictive game which essentially involves bringing all your counters home before your opponent brings his/hers home. Youngsters might not be as drawn to this as some of the brighter, more gimmicky games about but once they’ve got the gist of it, they’ll find it hard to tear themselves away. The fact that it’s a game of both luck and skill makes it super exciting. It’s a game for two, so bigger families might want to play tournament-style. We wager quite a few grown-ups will find themselves staying up into the small hours for “one last game”.

100 Questions – Original Edition

Best: For getting to know one another even better

Rating: 9/10

  • Players: 2+
  • Ages: 8+
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Set up: Less than 5 minutes
  • Lasts: As long or as short as you’d like

Not strictly a board game, but so lovely and rewarding we felt that this set of questions deserved a place here. The pack contains, as the name suggests, 100 questions that players take turns to ask one another in a bid to generate interesting conversation or spark debate. These questions are fairly deep without being too heavy – but cover the sort of topics that might not naturally crop up in everyday conversation such as “if you had to write a book what would it be about?” or “is there anyone you regret losing touch with?”.

Themes include work, money, love, taste and travel and we think that while there are lots of questions that would suit all ages, parents of younger children might want to vet in advance of playing. We love this game so much because it’s an antidote to phones and screens and reminds us of the value of conversation.

The verdict: Family board games

A Game of Cat and Mouth wins for novelty, imagination and addictiveness – and that it appeals to all ages. But if you’re looking for something more cerebral with an educational bent for younger children, Pop To The Shops is a brilliant introduction to board games. Herd Mentality’s potential for chaos thanks to catering to up to 20 players makes it a hugely entertaining game for all.

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For some adult-friendly games to play when the little ones are tucked in, check out our round-up of the best board games for adults

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