PLAYlist 53: Family Game Roundup | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, September 20th, 2020  

PLAYlist 53: Family Game Roundup

Jun 05, 2020 By Austin Trunick
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In our current, social distancing situation, gaming has changed for most of us. We aren’t getting together with our play groups, and most Friendly Local Game Stores still can’t set up their tables for their open gaming nights. Personally, my regular sessions have moved from my dining room table to the lovely online tabletop gaming service, BoardGameArena. It’s not the same as sitting around a table with a few pals, eating snacks and pushing around wood and cardboard, BUT — until matters go back to anything resembling normality, it’ll more than suffice.

Needless to say, with my game group scattered all over the state and unable to meet up, this column’s gotten somewhat derailed over the last couple months. When things go back closer to normal, I’ll be eager to get running again on a regular schedule.

For those of us at home lucky enough to have a partner or roommate sheltering in place with them who’s game-friendly, maybe things haven’t changed all that much around the tabletop. For me, my most easily-accessible opponents are my children, aged four and one. After eight weeks of Guess Who and Candy Land, game night has gotten a bit stale – which is why I’m grateful to publishers like Goliath Games, Thames & Kosmos, Pressman, and Jax, who’ve sent us some family-friendly titles to shake our household out of this gaming funk.

This special edition of our PLAYlist column is for all of the other parents out there looking for more ways to have fun with the little ones they’ve spent so many hours … days… weeks… with in self-isolation.

First up we have kiddie-centric spins on a couple classics. In fact, no game may be more classic than Mancala, which has been around for centuries and transcended cultural borders. (Seriously—the game may date all the way back to Ancient Egypt, and you can see one thousand-plus year-old boards in museums all over the world.) Any game with such enduring appeal has to have rules that are simple to pick up, and Mancala is no different – the game revolves around picking up stones and dropping them, one at a time, into the pots around the board in a circular pattern. A player has their own “store” space at their end of the board, and if you finish a turn dropping your last piece in it, you take another turn. The player who captures the most pieces, wins.

Making the game more attractive for a young audience, Pressman has released a version called Mancala for Kids. Rather than pebbles, beads, or other boring baubles, this edition has plastic animals—lions, hippos, dogs, turtles—in varying colors, lightweight yet clear enough to look like glass. My kids loved sorting these even before playing the game. As for the game itself, it’s a great way to practice counting, and once a child grows into it, a method of learning strategic timing. Plus, it comes with a foldable wooden board which can store the pieces inside, which is clutch for any good mancala set. (And if, heaven forbid, your children lose any of the animals, you can easily replace parts with pennies, small toys, or any other bit or bob.)

Thames and Kosmos’ Drop It comes with a thin, clear plastic tower (think: Connect Four) you’ll assemble in the middle of your table. The opening at the top is just wide enough for players to pick up and drop in the colorful, wooden shapes that act as the game’s primary pieces. As these pieces begin to fill the tower, they’ll stack on one another, or deflect as they collide. Players will try to get their pieces to land at the highest points in the stacks, where they’re worth more points, without it touching any piece of the same color or shape. (The tower narrows towards the top – it makes aiming your shapes more challenging than you’d expect!)

Pre-schoolers will need some help with the scoring, but Drop It delivers those same, tactile pleasures of dropping objects and watching them bounce down a vertical plane that made “Plinko” everyone’s favorite game on The Price Is Right. Scoring aside, smaller kids with the manual dexterity to pick up the pieces and slide them into the top of the board will have fun doing so… over, and over, and over again. (It’s a great way to help nail home their shapes and colors, too, by discussing what they’re picking up each time they drop a piece in.) Plus, if the kids have gone to bed without putting away their games… as they’re known to do… it’s a nice, ten-minute distraction for their parents, who will mine more strategy from the shape placement and blocking opportunities in the game.

Sequence for Kids is another version of a classic game remade for – you guessed it – kids! If you don’t remember playing Sequence, the game has a gridded board on which you’ll be trying to make lines of four of your personal chips. The … for Kids version fills the squares on the board with colorful, cartoony animals which make it more fun for both kids and adults alike as they’re scouring the play area for their matching characters.

Players will always have a hand of three cards. On each turn, they’ll play one – on it, there will be an animal, which has a couple matches on the board. You’ll then place your chip on an unoccupied match, then draw a new card. You’ll go back and forth doing this until someone completes a four-chip sequence. (There are unicorn cards – wild cards – and dragon cards, which allow you to remove a chip from the board, which add a layer of strategy and make the game less about luck.) If you have a four-year-old like mine, who insists on stalemate after stalemate of Tic Tac Toe or Connect Four, Sequence is a natural next step that will make game time a lot more fun for both of you.

For even younger children, we have two releases from Goliath Games. At the center of Pop the Pig is a large, plastic porker in a chef’s outfit; players take turns rolling a six-sided die and drawing a chunky, plastic hamburger of the designated color. You’ll then feed the burger to the pig and pump his hat down the number of times shown. Eventually, his round, rubber belly will bust the buckle from his belt, and that player is the winner.

Banana Blast kind of reminded us of a jack-in-the-box, where you’re eagerly anticipating the startling moment when the jack pops free of his confines. Here, players roll a die to see whether they’ll draw one or two bananas, gift one to a neighbor, or snatch one from another player’s stash. A rubber monkey rests in a plastic cradle surrounded by the bananas you’ll be pulling – one of them will trigger the monkey to launch out of his tree, and the parent or child with the quickest twitch reflexes to catch it will score bonus bananas. It’s the sort of game where kids will be holding their breaths with each banana they pick – any one could be the fruit that pops the plastic primate into the air.

You’ll recognize something that both these games have in common is that they’re just as much toys as they are games. They look fun on the table and beg to be played with – that’s something that’s great for especially young children, who aren’t yet attracted to the rules and copious cardboard of Candyland. We’ve used the term “gateway game” as a way to describe titles good for introducing someone to the board gaming hobby. These are gateway games to introduce kiddos to the idea of gaming entirely. With very simple rules and a toy-like component that even super-young children can glom onto, they’re good ways to get your littlest ones around the gaming table.

Heck, even my one-year-old enjoyed quietly feeding the pig his burgers for twenty minutes, or picking the banana after his mother or myself rolled the die. If I can get him started this young on Pop the Pig, perhaps I’ll have him eagerly playing Twilight Imperium in thirteen or fourteen years.

Hopefully, you’ll find something here that appeals to your family unit. One thing that’s really great abou these games are that they’re much more affordable than most hobbyist games we normally cover, and widely available at many department stores and online. You can follow the links below to find more information about these games online:

Mancala for Kids
Drop It
Sequence for Kids
Pop the Pig
Banana Blast

But what if I have older kids, you ask? We'd steer you towards our recently-covered Disney Villainous for your tween to teen group.

For this entry’s playlist, I’m turning to a group who I loved as a teen and have recently introduced to my own four-year-old. The Aquabats – a team of superheroes-turned-musicians – rose to prominence over twenty years ago during the Third Wave ska renaissance, but have leaned further towards upbeat rock and roll over the decades. The band is unabashedly goofy and their lyrics shamelessly silly, and most of it is very kid-friendly – unsurprisingly, as the band’s lead singer co-created the beloved Nickelodeon kids’ series Yo Gabba Gabba!

The band has a new album on the horizon, including the quarantine-centric song “Pajamazon” – I’m stoked, and so are my kids.

***

Previous PLAYlist columns: Disney VillainousCrown of EmaraMini RailsTribes: Dawn of HumanityGates of DeliriumTerror BelowThe Estates, NobjectsMemoir '44 & New Flight Plan, Bubble TeaUndoGizmosImhotep, Hex Roller, The Table is Lava, Happy Salmon, The Quacks of QuedlinburgThe ClimbersNEOMCrusaders: Thy Will Be DoneReykholtPandemicEverdellKingdomino, CitrusHistory of the World, Altiplano, Pioneer Days, Crystal Clans, Jurassic Park: Danger!, PhotosynthesisIce CoolFood Truck ChampionArs Alchimia & LemuriaA Game of Thrones CatanTroyesTwilight Imperium: Fourth EditionFlip ShipsNMBR 9UnearthEscape from 100 Million B.C., Orleans (plus Trade & Intrigue)Whistle StopCaverna: Cave vs CaveTwilight StruggleHonshuBärenpark, Notre Dame & In the Year of the DragonYokohamaClank! A Deck-Building AdventureVillages of ValeriaNew York SliceWatson & HolmesHanamikoji.



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