Saturday, December 31, 2005

Holiday Family Gaming

My parents live in Ridgefield (WA) just a short drive up the freeway from Vancouver (WA). Yesterday we drove down for the afternoon to pay them a holiday visit. My sister Carrie was up from San Francisco for the holidays and my sister Becky's kids from Vancouver came by to keep our kids company. (Ironically, Becky and her husband Rich are in Seattle visiting friends so we missed seeing them this time.)

Our family has a tradition of playing games whenever we get together. The game of choice for my brothers, sisters and parents has long been Hearts. We usually play with two decks since there are so many of us. Hearts is hardly my favorite game and with any other group I'd probably never ask to play it but at our family get-togethers I always have a good time because of the company and the conversation. Conversation has always been an important part of our Hearts games. Bad jokes, movie quotes, puns and stories have long been a fixture around the table. In times like these, the game is really much more of an excuse for us to socialize than a competition.

For the last few years, I've been bringing different games with me whenever we visit. I think deep down inside I've got this secret hope that something else will catch on as the family game but I'm very sensitive about not wanting to spoil a tradition. There's something to be said about playing a game where everybody already knows the rules and feels so comfortable with it that they can play almost without thinking about the game. I try and bring a small variety of games. Usually, I choose something that's very simple to teach because I know that most of my family members aren't willing to learn anything very complicated. I also try to bring things that are light so we can talk while we play. This isn't the right setting for a deep gamer's game. Card games are a good choice because they're familiar and my family has a card playing tradition. (And it doesn't hurt that they pack so small.) I also bring one or two children's games because my parents are always happy to play a children's game with their grand kids.

This visit was unusual for a couple of reasons. First of all, this time I made a conscious decision to let others suggest we play a game. Of course I was itching to play something from the moment I walked in the door but I reluctantly admit that I'm a little weird that way. Turns out that was the right thing to do. My sister asked me if I'd brought anything to play and so I introduced her to Fairy Tale. We didn't have time to play more than a single hand before lunch but she seemed to enjoy it.

The other reason that this visit was unusual was that we didn't play Hearts! Instead, when it came time for the big "adults game" to get started, I cautiously asked if they'd like to try something different and we played Sticheln. That went over very well. I was very pleased to see that they quickly "got it", adeptly and openly discussing strategies and gleefully chuckling whenever anyone got stuck with a hand full of negative points. They're a smart bunch. There were only a few blunders and everybody had a great time. My mom did terribly in our one practice hand but then we reset the scores and she went on to thrash us, finishing up with around fifty points when the second best score was in the teens. My father was the surprising big loser. He's a brilliant guy and he usually beats us at whatever we play but he had a couple of disastrous tricks and in Sticheln, that's all it takes.

We also got Ghost Grove to the table. Grandma had played Spooky Stairs with us during a visit a few weeks ago and she was quick to ask if we'd brought "that ghost game". When I told her we'd brought the sequel she was delighted to try it out. Jessica (5), Matt (8) and I played as well but we couldn't talk Kylie (Jessica's young cousin) into playing with us at first. I can tell she's a little afraid of playing games, probably afraid of loosing or feeling foolish. But once the game got going she quickly became interested as a spectator and as soon as we finished, she begged to play it with us. That was a nice success.

All in all it was a lovely visit filled with good food, good games, and great company. I'd call that a successful day.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Demonstrating everything that's wrong with Christian board games... reports that a Kansas woman has created a new Christian themed board game called "The Kingdom Seekers".

Now let me start by saying that I have nothing against Christian themed anything. I happen to be a Christian myself and our family is quite devout. I think the world needs more family-friendly, uplifting games and I have nothing against someone using a Christian theme (although I do tend to avoid the more preachy ones). But if you're going to make a Christian themed game, for heaven's sake, don't base it on Candyland! What was she thinking? Candyland has to be one of the all-time worst games ever made! It's 100% luck! You might just as well flip a coin to determine the winner and save yourself all the boring card drawing. Ugh!

Now if you want a good Christian themed game (well, Biblical at least), try Ark of the Covenant (based on Carcassonne) or Settlers of Canaan (based on Settlers of Catan). Sure, they're derivative as well but at least they're based on real games!

(Yes, I'm aware that she was trying to create a game for the very young but that doesn't change the fact that Candyland is just an outright horrid game, even for the 3 year old set. There are far better choices for any age group.)

Source: Columbia, SC: "The Kingdom Seekers" is newest Christian board game via

Another Tuesday, Another Game Night

I must say that building 50 is an infinitely superior venue. The lighting is just so much better than in Red West that it's like the difference between night and day. Everyone present tonight agreed and it seems likely that we'll make the change permanent.

Considering that this week falls between the two winter holidays, our turnout was actually pretty good. We had enough people to keep two or three games going throughout the night. Caylus was played again (although I wasn't there in time to get in on it) and some die-hards even showed up at around 10 in the morning to spend most of the day playing Die Macher. One of these days I'd like to give it a try but I'm afraid that no matter how good the game may be, it's going to prove way too long for my tastes.

As for myself, I started out the night with a three-player game of Fairy Tale. Fairy Tale is a pretty good light card game. It plays very quickly (around 15 minutes) and the drafting mechanic is pretty nifty. It's not the world's best card game but it packs a lot of interesting stuff into such a short game.

Next, I played The Gardens of the Alhambra for the first time. Frankly, I was underwhelmed. There just didn't seem to be enough interesting decisions in the game. Most of the time it felt like there were always one or two moves that were clearly "best", but finding them could take a little analysis. I could see this game suffering from "analysis paralysis". And for a game that's this simple (and frankly uninspired) that's the kiss of death.

The next game we played, Hacienda, was quite a bit better in almost every way. This is a new game by Wolfgang Kramer and like most of his games (El Grande, Mexica, Java, Tikal, etc.) it's one of those games where you're given a limited number of actions and it's never quite enough to do what you want to do on your turn. It's not a difficult game to learn but from our one playing it was pretty clear that you could play this several times and still feel that you haven't found the best strategy.

Finally, I rounded out my evening with a four player game of Fairy Tale. It works just as well with four as it does with two or three. Again, not the best card game there is but it packs a marvelous punch for its length and that's saying something.

While all this was going on, Kray, Adam and Mike were playing Kray's latest favorite: Descent. Kray's so enamored with this game that he begged for a copy as a Christmas present. Now not a day goes by that he doesn't beg me to play it with him. I still haven't actually played but I was able to spend the last hour of the evening as a spectator and it does indeed look to be quite good. If you're at all interested in a good old fashioned dungeon crawl then you'll probably fall in love with the juicy figures, modular dungeon map, inventive combat system and all of the other goodies that come inside this monstrous box. I think he's probably going to convince me to play it with him sometime this week.

So if you've noticed the posting time, you're probably wondering what I'm doing up at 2:30 in the morning. Well, along with the other Christmas gifts, my son was kind enough to give me a cold and while I'm mostly over it, for some reason I just haven't been able to get comfortable enough to sleep tonight. I'll be heading up stairs to try again soon. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

World of Warcraft the Board Game - Sold Out

A couple of days ago we managed to score several copies of World of Warcraft the Board Game. We're already sold out and the game hasn't even fallen off of the New Games list yet. I think we must have set some sort of personal record. We sold out so fast that I didn't even get time to pull a copy for myself! And to make matters worse, Fantasy Flight seems to have grossly underestimated demand for the game and word from my distributor is that we won't be getting more copies until perhaps MARCH! Yikes! So those of you who have a copy ... consider yourselves the lucky ones!

Monday, December 26, 2005

ALERT! New Game Night Location!

Well after posting my previous post I just heard that some of the guys got together and voted on a change of location for tomorrow's game night. We've decided to meet in the building 50 cafeteria instead.

In case you don't know how to get there, building 50 is the building immediately North East of the NE 40th Street exit. Take I520 to the NE 40th Street exit, head east on 40th and then immediately turn left into the building 50 parking lot. (See map.)

I'm told that there is one door that leads to an outside seating area adjacent to the cafeteria so if you need access to the building you should look for that and knock on the door.

Please Come to Game Night!

Once again I'd like to extend an invitation to anyone in the vicinity of Redmond, Washington to come join us for game night. We meet every Tuesday night at 5 pm on the upper floor of the Red-West Cafeteria on the Microsoft campus.

We're a very friendly crowd so don't be shy. You'll be very welcome. And with Christmas just past, I'm confident that there will be some new games to play.

Just follow the map and knock on the door. We'll be happy to let you in.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas!

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I hope you have a happy one.

Those of you who do celebrate Christmas: I hope your holiday is full of games, love and laughter.

Friday, December 23, 2005

First Impression: Fairy Tale

Last summer there was quite a buzz around a new card game from Japan named Fairy Tale. I'm coming a little late to the party because I had enough domestic games to keep me busy without resorting to importing a game from Japan. Now thanks to Z-Man Games, I don't have to import it. They've printed an English version and today I cracked open a copy so Kray (my oldest son) and I could try it out.

The rules describe a basic rule set and an advanced rule set. I'd recommend you just jump right into the advanced rule set. It's not that much harder and it makes the game a lot more interesting.

So far, I've only played the game with two players but I must say it plays pretty well. I'll play it with more players soon and after I do, I'll try and write a proper review.

The coolest thing in the game is the drafting mechanic. Each player is dealt an initial hand of five cards. Everyone simultaneously drafts one card from their initial hand into their main hand and they pass the rest to their neighbor. This is repeated five times until each player has drafted five cards. Once the final hands have been drafted, play begins for that round. This is a brilliant idea. It eliminates a lot of the luck of the deal and it also creates some shared knowledge about what cards other players might have.

The other cool part of the game is the way that the cards interact with one another to score points but I'll save a description of how that works for my review.

So the quick summary: This looks like a very cool card game which I plan to play quite a bit in the next few days.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Review: Geisterwäldchen (Ghost Grove)

Geisterwäldchen (Ghost Grove) is the sequel to the delightful award-winning children's game Geistertreppe (Spooky Stairs). It supports 2-6 players ages 5 and up. A game typically lasts less than 15 minutes.

In Spooky Stairs, players moved magnetic pawns up a haunted staircase. During the course of the game, their pawns turned into ghosts which all looked alike. Ghost Grove also involves magnets and ghosts but this time there is also a "giant dwarf" who helps the children through a haunted forest. Yes, I know that a giant dwarf is an oxymoron. Don't blame me, I don't make this stuff up. I just report it.

Ghost Grove shares a lot in common with its predecessor: the pieces and board look similar (it's illustrated by the same illustrator), the pieces have magnets in their bases, and there is a large die marked with ghosts on two faces and one, two or three pips on the others (two faces have three pips). This time though, the game is a little bit more strategic.

You begin your turn by rolling the die. If it shows a number of pips then you choose any child (pawn) and move it forward the number of spaces indicated. If the child reaches the space with the giant dwarf, then a magnet in the dwarf's base attracts a magnet in the child's base and they travel together as one unit. If any other children are already stuck to the dwarf then they move with it as well. This is a very clever mechanism which tends to clump leaders together and also ensures that the dwarf is always with the leader. It also means that it's possible for players to reach the finish in a tie (which can be a good thing in a kid's game).

There are a couple of ways that children can become detached from the dwarf. If the dwarf crosses the log bridge (about one third of the way along the path) any children attached to it fall into the stream and are washed back to the start. Also, if a player rolls a ghost then they must take one of the two ghosts in the game and cover a child, rendering it immobile. As in Spooky Stairs, children under ghosts look identical but, unlike Spooky Stairs, they can't move until the ghost is removed (usually by putting it on another child).

There is also a sunlit spot on the path about one third of the way to the finish. When the dwarf reaches that spot, all of the ghosts are temporarily scared away, freeing up all the children.

And finally, there's an optional, advanced rule where players get to move a ghost once for free. Deciding when to exercise this option can be quite important.

As I mentioned, this game is a little more strategic than Spooky Stairs. It may not always be best to be the leader. Sometimes it's better to move another piece instead of your own. And sometimes it actually makes sense to cover your own piece with a ghost. None of the strategy is too deep for a five year old, but the fact that it's there at all raises this game a step above your average child's game.

I quite like this game. It's got all the makings of a fine children's game: it's pretty, it's fun to play with the whimsical pieces, it's short enough that children won't give up on it half way through, and it's simple enough to teach to a five-year-old yet deep enough to hold an adult's interest. My kids loved it too. We played it several times today and they were shouting, giggling and groaning all the way through and then asking to play it again as soon as we finished. If you liked Spooky Stairs, you'll love Ghost Grove!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Game Night Write Up

I keep showing up late for game night. This time it was because I took Kray and Jason to see the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe first. (Good movie by the way.) Then the three of us headed over to game night.

When we arrived, we found Curt (welcome surprise), Christopher, Mike M., and Tejas just sitting down to a game of Lost Valley. I've yet to play this tile laying/exploration game. I arrived too late to join the game (they were full at four) but what little I saw looked very good and they all seemed to enjoy it.

Although we were late, Kray and Jason managed to squeeze into Oren, Mike K, and Jose's game of Descent: Journeys in the Dark. That filled them up so I decided to order food while I waited for the other game to finish up. I still haven't managed to get in on a game of Descent but Kray and Jason can't stop talking about it so it's obviously a hit with them. Everyone else who's played it seems to like it too.

Adam arrived just as I finished ordering dinner so we played a quick game of PÜNCT, the new game in the project GIPF series. This is a two-player connection game with the added twist that pieces can be moved (in limited ways) on the board after they've been placed. They can also be stacked and used as bridges to cross over your opponent's pieces. It's a good game and we both enjoyed it but I have to say that it's not something I expect to play a whole lot of. It makes my head hurt too much as I try and find the optimal move. But if you're an abstract strategy game fan, and especially if you've liked the other Project GIPF games, then you should give this a look. Adam won, then we undid one move and I won, then we traded back and forth several times in similar fashion.

After Lost Valley broke up, Tejas went home, leaving five of us (the Descent game was still going strong) to play Curt's new copy of Caylus. This game is easily the most lauded game since Essen, having quickly risen to a second place ranking (behind Puerto Rico) on the Geek ( Should you believe the hype? Well if my two playings (I played it again today) are any indication, YES! It's fantastic. This is the next Puerto Rico. It's a near-perfect, true gamer's game. Even more impressive is that (near as I can tell) this is William Attia's first game! To hit a home run your first time at bat must be quite the rush! I don't know if it will stay at number two but I'm pretty sure it will remain right up near the top. Rio Grande Games will be releasing a new production run (the first was rather limited) soon so look for it! (By the way, I won last night's game but it was pretty close. I came in second today.)

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Wait a minute! It's almost Christmas!!!!

Where does the time go? This has been a crazy Christmas season around here. We've been getting so many Christmas orders that I've been having trouble doing much of anything else. Between packing and delivering orders, running over to our distributor's place to pick up more stock, and all of the various Christmas parties my wife's in charge of putting together, the holiday almost snuck up on me. In fact, my wife and I finally got around to doing our own Christmas shopping (most of it anyway) just last night. Normally we're done by October but this year we've just been too darn busy. I almost forgot to even do it!

Yes, this has been a good season for the store. Thank you very much. Keeping some things in stock has been difficult, to say the least. It seems that each season I underestimate something. This year I think the most difficult thing to keep in stock has been either Apples to Apples, Ticket to Ride or Bohnanza but there have been other high-demand items as well. You only have to take a browse through the catalog pages to see that we've got a lot of stuff that's currently out of stock. That can be both good and bad. It's good, because it means that the store will be turning a profit this month. It's bad because I'm sure that there are people out there who aren't getting what they really wanted. I really hate that. I don't run HFoG to get rich (heaven knows it's not likely to do that); I do it to promote and support my hobby. I hate having to tell people that I can't get them everything they want.

Now I'm just hoping that I can find some more time to play some games! The first couple days of this next week will probably be pretty busy but I'm hoping that as the week winds down, things will even out a bit and I can get in a good solid day of gaming with some friends. Hopefully your lives are starting to return to normal as well.

If you celebrate Christmas then let me wish you a happy one. If you celebrate something else then let me wish you happiness in that as well. I hope we all have a safe and happy holiday season, filled with laughter, happiness, and lots and lots of games!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

New Ticket to Ride a comin': T2R - Märklin Edition

There's a third version of the popular Ticket to Ride series coming. Days of Wonder has just announced the impending arrival of the new Märklin Edition, with some new rules and a new board. This time the game will be set in Germany and there will be merchandise to deliver between the cities.

Does the world need a new Ticket to Ride? Well, given that we've had such a hard time keeping Ticket to Ride and Ticket to Ride: Europe in stock this Christmas season, perhaps it does. We should find out for sure in April when it arrives in North American stores.

Source: Boardgame News

Welcome to my new home.

I've been thinking about moving the blog from its old home on Bloglines for a while now. Bloglines was nice because it easily integrated with their excellent web-based RSS feed reader but as a blog host they're pretty Spartan. They offer almost no customization support, they don't support comments, and frankly, they don't look nearly as nice.

I think things will be quite a bit nicer here on Blogger. As a blog service, Blogger is much more mature and offers a lot of flexibility.

So to those of you who have updated your RSS feeds to point to the new digs I say "Thanks!" And to those of you who are just discovering this blog, I say "Welcome!"

For those of you who use Bloglines, there's a subscribe-to button at the bottom of the sidebar at right which you can use to add me to your blogroll.

Review: Polarity

Polarity has to be one of the most unique abstract strategy games ever invented. It's primarily a two player game but the rules can easily be adapted for four players playing as teams. Games typically last around ten minutes.

Polarity is played on a canvas playing mat marked with a circular playing area roughly twenty inches in diameter. Each of the plastic pieces is actually a magnet, colored black on one side and white on the other. All of the pieces pack neatly in a cardboard tube which, when rolled up inside the playing mat, slips inside a lovely canvas carrying bag with a leather tie. The production quality is first rate.

At the start of the game, players choose sides by flipping a red magnet marked with a bar or dot which is then placed in the center of the playing area. White goes first and places five of his disks, white side up, on the playing surface then Black does the same (black side up of course). These ten disks are called "foundations" and become the base upon which the rest of the game is played. From that point on, all pieces must be played in such a way that they lean (or float) against the magnetic field of one or more foundation pieces. This gives the game a rather eerie quality as pieces seem to delicately hover and float about the playing surface.

As new pieces are placed, the magnetic fields combine and alter, pieces waver and bob, and eventually something will become unstable and pieces will fly towards one another. When this happens, the player is said to have "faulted" and the opposing player gets to attempt to recover the faulted pieces, converting them into towers of her own color.

The game ends when one player has successfully played all of her pieces. At that point, players count up all the pieces in their towers and subtract any pieces in their hands to arrive at their scores.

Polarity is simple to learn, challenging to play, and elegant in its design. Win or lose, it's absolutely delightful to watch the pieces hover and bob as if by magic. It's addicting and very unique. I consider this a must have game for abstract game lovers and science geeks alike.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Game Night Write Up

Last night was game night and we had some new faces! I can't remember everybody's names (I'm bad with names) but give me a week or two and I'll get them down. My two oldest sons Kray and Jason came with me. We showed up a little late (around 6:30 or so) but we were able to jump right into something so all's good!

Oren, Christopher, Mike K., Jose, and Wade were getting ready to play Oren's new copy of Descent: Journeys in the Dark. This is a HUGE game by Fantasy Flight. The box is roughly 24" x 12" x 5" and it weighs nearly 11 pounds! It's packed with awesome figures, dice, markers, modular board pieces, and who knows what else. It's also a pretty long game. It took them about two or three hours to finish. Oren, who was running the dungeon, won the game.

Kray, Jason, Birch and I opened a new game: Techno Witches. That has to be one of the dumbest names for a game I've ever heard but the game is actually quite fun! Each player has a witch figure on a souped up broom and a spell book. Spell books are really half-circle cardboard cutouts with spaces around them that look kind of like docking bays. Circular obstacles and way points are arranged on the table. Placed to the side is a pile of cardboard curve templates. On your turn you either select one of the curves and add it to your spell book, or fly using all the curves that you've already added to your spell book. Flying involves laying all of the curves end to end and moving your broom the indicated distance. It's kind of similar to the movement in Wings of War if you're familiar with that. Anyway, it was very novel and quite fun. There's actually a surprising amount of strategy involved since you can deliberately get in other people's way and prevent them from successfully moving.

While we were doing that, our newcomers, along with Tejas and Mike M. played a game of Traumfabrik. This is a great auction game by Knizia with a Hollywood theme. It's supposed to be getting an English version this coming year. I can't wait.

Tejas, Kray, Mike M. and I played Ark again. I still like it. It doesn't hurt that I won.

But for me, the game of the evening has to be Polarity. Birch and I played it for the first time last night. This is an older game (1986 I believe) but it's been out of print for some time. It's a two player abstract strategy game where players take turns playing pieces on a round canvas playing mat. The catch is that the pieces are actually magnets and you need to place each piece so that they are leaning against another piece's magnetic field. If you accidentally disturb any of the pieces that are already on the playing field then you lose points to your opponent. It's very clever, very elegant and very unique. I've never played anything quite like it. We liked it so much that we immediately played again, this time as a four-player team game with Mike K. and Mike M.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

New Games Coming Tomorrow

We just got in a big order today so hopefully we can fulfill most of the few orders that are still on hold waiting for restocks. But more importantly, we just got in two new games that will get added to the store tomorrow: Polarity and Techno Witches. I played both at game night tonight and they're both quite good, particularly Polarity which is unlike anything else I've ever played. (Yes, I know Polarity isn't a new game but it's been out of print for ages and I hadn't had a chance to play it before. I'm excited to see it finally back in print.) I'll post a writeup tomorrow after I add the new stuff to the store. Look for it! I'd do it tonight but I've been up since 5 AM and I need some sleep.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Educational Gaming

Games have always been good educational tools. I have fond memories of playing Chess, Checkers, and other strategy games back in grade school. I also have less than fond memories of playing tired worn-out chestnuts like Concentration, Battleship, Life and other roll-and-move style games. These days games have been undergoing a bit of a renaissance, and today's games are quite a bit better than most of the games you and I remember from our childhood. Here's a very brief history of what's been going on over the last few decades to bring you up to speed.

In the 70s, American board games were mostly boring. Monopoly was king and while Monopoly can be a good game when played by the correct rules, no one ever seems to know or use the correct rules. Most popular games were simple roll and move affairs like Life, Candyland, Payday, etc. Card games were usually variants of old standards: Old Maid variants, Slap Jack variants, Crazy Eights variants like Uno, and so on. While wholesome families got tired of playing boring games and turned on their televisions, old men and college students gathered on weekends to reenact famous battles with complicated strategy war games from companies like Avalon Hill and SGI.

In the 80s, Americans became enamored with party games and trivia games. Party games like Oodles and Pictionary became wildly popular and of course Trivial Pursuit spawned a whole army of knock-offs trying to capitalize on its simple formula for success. Meanwhile, poorly groomed misfit teens (count me among them) gathered in back rooms and basements to play Dungeons and Dragons and a long list of similar role playing games.

In the 90s a man named Richard Garfield invented Magic the Gathering and along with it the genre of the collectible card game (or CCG). For many, this sparked a new interest in gaming but parents everywhere groaned as their children's lunch money was devoured by the insatiable CCG monster. Say what you will about Magic, Pokemon and the like, they were fun to play and they breathed new life into the gaming industry. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, a revolution was quietly taking place. In 1995, a German dentist named Klaus Teuber invented a game that would change gaming forever. That game was Settlers of Catan and it was the vanguard of what would become a full-scale German invasion. Settlers of Catan wasn't the first of what would soon be called "German Style Games" or "Designer Games" but it was the first to really catch on in a big way and it continues to serve as a fine introduction to today's popular family strategy games.

So what does all of this have to do with education? Well, it means that there are now a lot of new and exciting games that you can use to help spice up your child's education! It means that for just about any subject you might be interested in, you can find a smart, high-quality game that you will probably enjoy playing just as much as your kids will. Gone are the days when educational games had to mean flash-cards, Concentration, or highly-derivative roll-and-move trivia games. In the following paragraphs I'll try and list just a few suggestions to get you started. Note that none of these games are actually designed and marketed as educational games; these are all games that are produced because they are fun to play and it's only coincidental that they happen to have some educational value. There's more where this came from, a lot more, so please feel free to send me an email if you'd like to know more.

Children's Games

Lets start with the younger crowd. Games for youngsters are tough because if it's simple enough for a five-year-old, it's probably too simple for you to enjoy. On the other hand, almost any children's game will help teach the basics of reading, counting and colors without even trying. Add in a little strategy and logic and your kid's got a leg up on the average student. Chicken Cha Cha Cha is a great memory game with bright colors. Buggo is also an excellent memory game and it's good for very young counters. Spooky Stairs tests counting, colors and memory. Go a little older, perhaps six or seven, and you're ready for Igloo Pop, a delightful little game that has players trying to guess how many beads are inside each plastic igloo. And my favorite children's game of all time is Enchanted Forest, which exercises memory, simple counting skills, a poker face and a little bit of strategy. Any of these games will be fun for parents as well as for kids.

With children older than eight or ten, the world opens up considerably. By then, children have begun to study specialized subjects and they've moved beyond counting, colors and basic logic. Now you can introduce games that take longer than fifteen minutes to play and that are more likely to hold your attention as well. This is where the fun begins. For the rest of this article let's group the games by specific subjects.


Almost any game can strengthen basic math skills since almost every game requires some sort of scoring but some are stronger than others. One of the better games for simple multiplication and addition is Take it Easy. This game is part math puzzle, part strategy game. SET is a classic game which is good for reinforcing set theory.


Everyone is familiar with Scrabble but another good spelling game is BuyWord, a game where players buy letters from the bank, rearrange them into words, and sell them back for a price that's based on word length. Another game you might try is Word Jam, a card game where people try to come up with words that make use of a set of letters. And Quiddler is yet another fun game where players use letter cards to form words.


Apples to Apples is a great party game where players match adjectives and nouns with hilarious consequences. Shakespeare: the Bard Game, is a very nice strategy game that's just loaded with Shakespearean quotes and trivia and yet it's not really a trivia game and one doesn't have to be an expert on Shakespeare to enjoy this game.


Almost any game with a map can be used to introduce geography. 10 Days in the USA is particularly good for learning the 50 States. Its cousin 10 Days in Africa is just as good for African geography. Ticket to Ride is also good for US geography and it happens to be one of the very best family strategy games there is. For global geography you might try a global war game such as Attack or Axis & Allies.


One of the most overlooked subjects in today's schools is economics and yet it's one of the most useful skills there is. One could argue that a good grasp of economics, supply and demand, how money works and what it's good for can do more to ensure a person's future than any other discipline. One of the best economic games out there is Power Grid, a game about building power plants and supplying electricity to cities (either US or German depending on which side of the board you use). Power Grid is a moderately difficult game and probably not a good choice for players under twelve. Modern Art is an excellent auction game about buying and selling paintings at auction and trying to manipulate the economy so as to maximize profits. And if you're looking for a real gamer's game with a deliciously brutal economy, try Age of Steam. It's one of my very favorite games but it's a bit long and new players could find it a little difficult to play.

Logic, Strategy & Tactics

This is another category where almost any game will do. If you're looking for a pure abstract strategy game, try one of the games from the Project GIPF series of games. These are pure two-player abstract strategy games, similar to Chess but very fresh. If you're looking for something that might reinforce computer programming skills, try RoboRally, a frantic madcap programming race that has laser-equipped robots racing and battling one another on a wacky warehouse floor. Working on spatial relationships or abstract planning? Try Ricochet Robots or Blokus.

Biology, Food Chain

Primordial Soup is a very unique game about (of all things) cellular reproduction and genetic transfer. Frank's Zoo is a clever trick-taking card game where cards represent animals and they are ranked by their standing in the food web: this is a game of who eats who.


Of all the educational game categories, this one is perhaps the most wide open. History encompasses such a vast range of subjects and most games are set in some historical setting so pick your time period and you're almost bound to find an appropriate game. If you want to delve into medieval European history you're in particularly good luck because it seems that 2 out of 3 designer games have a medieval theme. For instance, Shadow of the Emperor is a great game about medieval European politics. Louis XIV is an excellent game set in the court of the Sun King. For a good game about ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea, try Mare Nostrum. Struggle of Empires is an excellent game about empire building and global conflict in the centuries after the discovery of the New World. For World War II history, particularly the battles surrounding D-Day, I'd recommend Memoir '44, an excellent light war game with scenarios taken from real battles that took place during the liberation of Europe.

Hopefully you've found something in this article to start you thinking. If you'd like to know more about any of these games I'd encourage you to look up their entries on, the best gaming resource on the web. None of these games will take the place of a lesson, but each of them could be used to spark an interest or reinforce a concept. Most importantly, each of these games is very fun and likely to provide hours of "wholesome recreational activities" for you and your family. And really, that's what gaming is all about!

This article was originally published at

Review: Ark

Clouds are gathering and Noah's running out of time. He needs to load the ark and he needs to do it soon. Your job is to help him find safe cabins for all of the animals and provisions without capsizing the ark. I'm talking about Ark of course, the latest game from Doris & Frank. This is a game for 3-5 players ages 8 and up. It plays in around 45 minutes.


Ark is a majority control card game / board game hybrid designed by Frank Nestel. Think of it as a board game without a board. Players compete to place the most animals and provisions on the ark.

Each card in the deck bears a picture of an animal or provision. Each card also has a weight and a temperature preference (hot, cold or don't care). Most animals are designated as omnivores, herbivores, or carnivores. Most cards also belong to one of the five victory categories: slow, shy, heavy, useful or provisions.

Players start with a hand of two cards and Noah's already loaded four animals on the ark just to get things started. On your turn you must decide whether to take two cards into your hand (one from a pool of 3 visible cards, the other from the top of the deck) or play one or two cards from your hand. Each card you play must be played in such a way as to keep the ark from tipping over while ensuring that nothing eats anything else along the way. Any time you play a card belonging to one of the five victory categories, you get to put one of your markers (they look like cute little dinosaurs) on the appropriate scoring card. Usually you'll wish you could do more on your turn than you can (which is a good thing).

Loading an ark can be a tricky business. First of all, you have to find cabins for all of the animals and provisions but you have to be careful how you assign them. No cabin can hold more than three cards. Carnivores and omnivores will eat any other animal that doesn't outweigh them, so they can't be put in the same cabin as another animal their size or smaller. Herbivores and omnivores will eat provisions so provisions must be put either in their own cabin or with carnivores. Some animals are shy and won't enter a cabin when a carnivore is around (although they'll stay there if one shows up later). Furthermore, everything has weight, and the ark must remain balanced while it's being loaded. As if that wasn't enough, some animals like the cold while others like the heat and they can't share cabins either.

You may open a new cabin by playing one of your orange disks (each player starts with 3) to the player on your right. Opening cabins is a bit painful because it means giving your opponents more playing opportunities; but when you open one, you get to take another card into your hand which takes off some of the sting.

Mixed into the lower half of the deck are five "rain cards" which act as a timer. When the second rain card is drawn, players get to choose one animal card from their hand as a "pet". Pets are placed face down and revealed at the end of the game, when they are scored as if they had been placed on the boat. When the fifth rain card is drawn, the end game begins. Players get a few more chances to play cards from their hands (at the cost of giving up one orange disk for each card played) and then the game ends.

When the game ends, the categories are scored and each player also gets one point for each unspent orange disk. Having the majority in a category earns you 10 points. Come in second and you get 6 points. You get 2 points just for placing in the category.


Ark comes in a small (roughly 9" x 7" x 1") box. Inside you'll find dozens of wooden counters in several colors, a nice black and white rule booklet, and a deck of very nice cards. The entire game is colorfully illustrated in Doris Matthäus' trademark style. Doris has done artwork for numerous games including Mü & More, Pickomino, Chicken Cha Cha Cha, and Frank's Zoo. Her style is quite distinctive, very attractive and fits the whimsical theme perfectly. All of the components are first rate and for about $20 MSRP, you get more than your money's worth in bits.


I like this game quite a bit and I definitely recommend it but I have to admit that Ark can be a little bit fiddly. I've played it several times now and while the card placement restrictions aren't really hard to grasp, there are enough of them that if you don't pay close attention someone will surely place a card illegally and you may miss it. It's happened in every game I've played. In fact, the placement restrictions sometimes feel a little too confining, making this into a bit more of a tactical game than a strategic one. You can start out with one strategy in mind but the situation often will demand that you depart from it (which is not necessarily a bad thing).

The first couple of times I played Ark I played it incorrectly but to be fair I have to say that wasn't the fault of the rules, which are pretty well written. The first time I played, my son explained the rules to me and I admit I wasn't really paying close attention. The second time I played was a day after I had skimmed through the rules myself. I was tired and I didn't pay close enough attention to what I was reading, figuring I already knew the game from my first playing, and sure enough, I totally botched it. Half way through the game we realized I'd missed some important rules and we'd been playing it wrong. Third time was the charm and every game since then has been just fine. I do recommend that you carefully go over the placement rules and make sure that everybody understands them thoroughly before you start the game. (If you like, you can download a nice little business card sized cheat sheet from my site at Also pay close attention to the endgame rules which are subtly (but importantly) different from the regular rules.

There's a lot to like about Ark. It has a charming theme. The artwork is perfect. The game has depth, offering a nice blend of strategy, tactics and luck. It's small enough to take just about anywhere. It's relatively easy to learn and it plays in about the right amount of time (45 minutes) for a middleweight game. If you're looking for a nice middleweight game that you can take with you anywhere you go then look no further.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Game Night: Don't Say I Didn't Warn You

I said I'd be doing a game night wrap up and here it is.

We had a decent turnout last night. It was nice to see Christopher back from his vacation. Also in attendance were both Mikes, Jose, Birch, Wade, Oren, and Tejas. Have I missed anyone?

I'd been itching to get Ark to table. This is the new game from Doris Matthäus and Frank Nestel. Doris is responsible for the artwork and Frank designed the game. I'd played it with my son a couple of days ago and then played it again over lunch yesterday but both times the correct rules eluded me. Mostly that's my fault because the rules really aren't all that complex but there are a number of niggling confusing bits that take a bit of getting used to. Tonight we got them right. I'll be writing a proper review very soon so I won't go into much detail right now but I will say that I enjoy the game. It has a nice blend of light strategy, tactics and luck. It plays a bit like a blend between a card game and an area-control board game. We played it twice back to back so that should say something about how it was received.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we also got Tigris & Euphrates to the table again. Mike K., Christopher, Wade and I duked it out for what turned out to be an incredibly low scoring game. I took second with 6. Mike K. edged me out with 7. I made a few mistakes early on, building a monument too early and trying a bluff that Mike called to my misfortune. The game went so fast because from the get go people set out to gobble up all the treasure cubes, ending the game with perhaps 1/4 of the tiles still in the bag. I never get tired of this game.

Also seeing table time were Bluff and die Seben Siegal and a few other games I've forgotten. I wasn't involved in any of those games.

My final game of the night was Sticheln. I really like this quirky trick taking (or avoiding) game. In Sticheln, the deck consists of a number of ranked cards in 5 or 6 suits (depending on the number of players in the game). It looks like a pretty standard trick taking game and the mechanics will be familiar to any card player. The quirk is that before the hand begins, players must select one suit as their "pain suit". Any card you take that isn't in your pain suit is worth one point but any card you take in your pain suit is worth minus its rank! Simple? Well it would be except that any card that doesn't match the suit of each trick's first card is trump! It becomes very hard to keep from taking negative points. I like this game because it's fast and easy to learn and it doesn't require precise card counting to play reasonably well. It can be somewhat unpredictable but it definitely rewards skillful play. Best of all, it can be downright brutal as players scramble to stick other players with cards in their pain suit. Tons of fun.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Session Reports: Does Anybody Read Them?

Tomorrow is game night (come join us!) and that means, come Wednesday morning I'll feel compelled to write up a session report. I write them for a couple of reasons. First, because it gives me a chance to mention the games that I like and say a few words about them. Perhaps somebody will see a game they don't know and want to know more about it. Second, it gives the guys in my game group who couldn't be there some idea of what went on in their absence and hopefully keeps them interested in coming back.

Every time I write a session report I find myself wondering if people actually read them. I subscribe to a number of game related blogs and I have to confess that I rarely do more than briefly skim the session reports. If I see a game that's unfamiliar to me then sometimes I'll read but most of the time I'm just not interested. I think that's because most session reports that I read are long winded and written like abridged play-by-plays of the games. They list the names of players I don't know, talk in depth about games that I already DO know, and then give me scores at the end that, quite frankly, I really don't care to know. I have to admit that most session reports really don't contain much information that interests me.

When I do our game night write-ups I try and keep that in mind. I try and include pictures of at least some of the games (so people can tell at a glance what was played without having to read). I try and give each game a short paragraph. I seldom talk about every game played. I mention names for the benefit of those in our group but I don't worry about recording detailed scores unless they're interesting (usually because they were very close). I try and describe the game in terms of what I like about it and why I think someone else might like it just in case someone's never heard of it before. Most of all, I try not to waste someone else's time with rambling meaningless statistics.

What do you think? Do you read session reports? Let me know. I'd love to hear your opinions. Email me at and tell me what you think.

And if anybody knows how to get Bloglines to allow reader comments, I'd like to hear that too. It's the number one feature I think Bloglines lacks. But that's an entry for another time.