Board Games

Clean notebooks and sharpened pencils, white sneakers and new socks, homework and carpooling -- the school year has begun. This year's hectic schedule of school and sports has made me eager to have one night a week just for the family. I have this thought every September, but this year I've resolved to make it happen. The Kellys will have a family game night every Friday. But I need fresh suggestions for games, something other than Sorry, Monopoly, Clue, and Life, the old standards in our home. Games that stimulate the brain or build skills would be a plus. I made the round of phone calls to experienced moms to pick their brains on games they play in their homes."I love a game we bought at the state capitol building in Sacramento," explained Erica. "It's called California Bingo [ $13.95 on

ucybingogames.com ], and it is a bingo game which uses beautifully illustrated picture cards of California: Golden Gate Bridge, California sea lions, the California poppy. It familiarizes kids with important California facts, and even young ones can play."

On a similar theme, she recommended Sequence States and Capitals edition ( $13.49 on Amazon). "The cards have a picture of the state with the capital, and players match states shapes to ones on the board. It's a great geography aid."

"The other game I like," she added, "is Cinq-O [ $6.99 on Amazon]. It is a dice game that is great for multiplication skills."

Acting is what Bernice's kids love. "My sister-in-law gave me a game called Kids on Stage [ $16.06 on Amazon]. The kids act out either an animal, noun, or verb, which are stated on the card. The person who guesses the answer gets to move his game piece ahead on the board. There's a picture of the word on the card so that the child doesn't have to read to be able to play. I like games that involve a bit of physical activity so the kid isn't just sitting there. But it is not a game that has the kids running pig wild through the house either."

Speaking of wild pigs, Katie recommended a card game called Pig Pile, The Hog Wild Card Game ( $18.50 on Amazon). "It's played with a special deck of silly pig cards, and it comes with a couple dozen little plastic pigs to keep track of the points won. The object of the game is to get rid of all your cards.

"Another favorite in our home is Othello [ $9.99 on Amazon]. It's a board game played by two people with 64 checker-type pieces -- black on one side, white on the other. It's easy to learn, even for younger kids, but there's also a lot of strategy for older kids. The other game played often here is Blokus [ $23.99 on Amazon]. It's an abstract strategy game, where you try to cover the board with your pieces."

Lissa suggested the board game Settlers of Catan ( $39.98 on Amazon). "It's a game parents enjoy playing with kids; some of those kid games can be torture to sit through. You are building settlements and collecting resources to turn your settlements into cities. Different resources are needed to build a city after a settlement is made. On each turn, everyone playing has the opportunity to accumulate resources, so the kids don't get bored when it is not their turn. It is a good strategy game and it has enough of an element of chance so that even if the parent has an edge on the strategy, the roll of the die throws in a chance element. And it is neat for the kids to think about how civilizations were made."

Set ( $9.99 on Amazon) was Lissa's other recommendation. "It's a good exercise in visual imagery and spotting patterns," she said. "And oftentimes, younger children are better at it than older ones, which isn't often the case with games. It's great to find a game that works for many age levels. My six-year-old can trounce me at it every time," she chuckled.

Serena's game recommendations came as no surprise. "Being a military-minded family, the boys and Dad love to play Risk [ $21.13 on Amazon], which is a strategy game, but also teaches geography and sparks conversations about military history. It comes in several time-period versions, with lots of tiny little pieces. Our eight-year-old can play it with Dad's help. Even more involved, yet thoroughly engrossing for big boys and Dads, is Axis & Allies [ $10.99 on Amazon]. It's more complex than Risk ; has more little tiny pieces, tanks, planes, factories, ships; and it deals with more specifics of military tactics but with the same educational benefits as Risk . Both games take hours. So in houses with toddlers, it's good to play these games in a room with a lockable door, so the game can be left for a time without being ruined."

Serena added a few more nonmilitary suggestions. " Boggle [ $13.99 on Amazon] is a good spelling, vocabulary, concentration game, and it can be played in short sessions. The rules can be adjusted to make it competitive between the ages; big kids and parents can be limited to four- to five-letter words. We also love Yahtzee [ $7.99 on Amazon], for math skills, and Catch Phrase [ $19.99 on Amazon], which builds kids' powers of description. All of these have relatively few parts to keep track of, especially if you have Electronic Catch Phrase ."

"In our family," answered Angela, "the best investments have been cards. Cards are cheap, and the variations are endless and cut across ages. My children especially like group games like spoon, poker, and Egyptian war."

"I hate most board games," Angela continued, "because they take too long to finish and usually end up in a thousand pieces, which I pick up for a few weeks, then finally throw away with the rest of the sweepings. However, my kids do enjoy Scene It? Turner Classic Movies Edition [ $41.95 on gamefest.com ]. One evening, we had a very fun intergenerational evening playing Scene It? with grandma and grandpa."

She added one final recommendation. "Call us geeks, but chess remains a perennial favorite in our house because it's the one game besides poker and golf that Dad will join in!"

"My older kids like Pente [ $11.42 on Amazon]," replied Margaret, "which is simple but strategic, requiring thinking ahead.Jenga [ $12.99 on Amazon] is a wood-block building game that is another favorite."

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