Family game night is one of those things where theory and reality sharply diverge, usually somewhere around your first Monopoly argument.

Sam DeLong/Flickr

As a parent, you start family game night with visions of bonding and happy multi-generational play. You picture your family sitting down and having wholesome family fun, laughing and sharing healthy snacks like a sitcom family. Or a family in a toy commercial.

As the veteran of many a thwarted and frustrating family game night, I can tell you exactly where things start to fall apart:

  • The first problem is the multi-generational aspect. Finding a game that the six year old can participate in but doesn’t leave the adults furtively checking the clock and wondering how time could move so slowly … well, it’s difficult.
  • The second is the competition factor. If you have at least one highly competitive player among you, then it’s hard to keep your pleasant family evening from devolving into a battlefield of glares, muttered remarks, and the constant cry of “that’s not fair.”
  • Finally, there’s the repetition problem. Jenga, Life, Blockus, and Ticket to Ride are all great games. But you can only play them so many times before people get a little restless and the enthusiasm for game night starts to fade.

So the trick is to find some new games to mix things up. In the quest to find games that the whole family really can enjoy, we’ve discovered a few gems that might liven up your family game night. All of them have been successfully tested on a too-cool-for-school 14-year-old, a mildly inattentive 12-year-old, and a elementary school girl who is determined not to let anyone else play for her.


The concept of Yamodo is wonderfully simple. It’s a combination of a “make up the definition” game and a doodle game.

Players start with a nonsense word and a few lines that can start off a picture. They provide the first line of the definition and the start of an accompanying picture, then pass it to the next player to add another line and more picture. And so it continues, with the nonsense definitions and pictures being completed as they’re passed around the group.

The fun comes when the definitions have completed the circuit and you share them (and the pictures) with everyone else. They are invariably funny, and there are usually a few that go completely off the rails in hilarious fashion.

It doesn’t matter if you can’t draw because it’s not that kind of game. Sure, the good artists in the group will help make the pictures look better. But the bad artists help make it even funnier.


Visually-speaking, Tokaido is a beautiful game. It’s also the rare game that feels rewarding even when you don’t come close to winning.

In Tokaido, each player takes the role of a traveler along the East Sea Road in (what feels like) late feudal Japan. Along the way, you earn points by stopping to admire the scenery, visiting spas, going to the temple, shopping for souvenirs, meeting people, and eating the local food.

Each player makes the trip as a certain era-appropriate character (like a geisha, a ronin, a merchant, or an old man), which gives them certain bonuses. The game play allows for heavy strategy, but is also interesting enough to be fun for players who aren’t racing to rack up points. This is about as close to zen as you can get in a board game.

King of Tokyo

This is not a quiet game. There are, after all, giant monsters and a bunch of dice. But it’s fun, raucous, and very easy to learn.

In King of Tokyo, each player gets to be a kaiju-like creature (think Godzilla, King Kong, or enormous robot bunny) that is trying to destroy all the other monsters and take over Tokyo. This is accomplished by rolling a handful of dice and picking the best combination to gain points, health, or damage your opponents.

Older players get to engage in heavier strategy involving cards that power you up and the best way to manage your life and point totals. But there’s just enough luck in the dice element to keep younger players engaged and feeling like they have a chance to win. Plus, what kid doesn’t love giant monsters?


In Pandemic, you’re all on the same team. And you’re fighting to save the world.

This isn’t the easiest game to play, but the fact that it’s cooperative makes a huge difference. You may have to guide younger players in the best way to play their character, but the way the game is played makes that more of a “let’s all pull together” feature than a “let Dad tell you what to do” thing.

Each player in Pandemic has a different role in the fight to stop a global outbreak of a deadly disease. You’ll have to work together to figure out how to effectively contain the regional outbreaks while working toward a cure and (hopefully) saving the world.

Ordinarily, I would caution that this might be too difficult to play with younger children, but we actually had more success when we played with our kids than with other adults. With the former, it was easy to execute an efficient plan to stop the outbreak. But with the latter, a few disagreements over strategy led to the (hypothetical game) deaths of millions.

This probably says something about the state of the world and modern politics.

Exploding Kittens

This is a game for the gleefully destructive, irreverent pre-teen boy in all of us.

Exploding Kittens manages to pack a lot of tension and strategy into a relatively simple card game. The idea is to avoid drawing an exploding kitten, which knocks you out of the game. You do this by using a variety of other game-changing cards, like “Defuse” (which puts the kitten bomb back in the deck), “Shuffle,” and “See the Future” (which lets you check out the cards coming up).

There are also cat cards, which you collect in order to take cards from other players. Not to mention my personal favorite — the “Nope” card, which lets you stop another player’s action. You haven’t lived until you’ve “noped” someone else’s “nope.” (I’m a mom. I get my excitement where I can.)

The pure silliness of the game will be enough to satisfy younger players. But there’s enough real strategy to make a win feel like an accomplishment. And a card called “Taco Cat,” so you’re still smiling even when you explode.

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