Nearly every household in America contains a shelf filled with boxes of potential joy, anguish, triumph, fury, gloating and frustration, also known as board games. If you play a game with a child, it can teach patience and sportsmanship; if you play with an adult, it can be nerdy foreplay…
…or the last battleground for a dying marriage.
As both a veteran host of and enthusiastic participant in countless game nights, I have had occasion to play all your classic games — and by “classic,” I mean “released before 1985.” It is in this capacity that I present a list, fit for printing and taking straight to Toys “R” Us (or, in some cases, your local Goodwill) so you can stock your own shelf with the essential board games, and card games, and … however the hell you categorize Twister.
Trouble is pretty much your Platonic ideal of a board game. The gameplay is straightforward and it’s an easy concept for people of pretty much all ages. What perhaps sets it apart are the pleasing 3D game piece holders built into the board—of course I mean the pop-a-matic die in the center. Pushing that thing is addictive. One gets the sense that this is a game designed by someone whose siblings were forever losing key components of other board games and sliding their pieces around the board when they thought no one was looking.
Any game that spawns such a durable catchphrase can never be excluded from a board game Hall of Fame. Just try not to think about the untold millions Milton Bradley has made over the years selling a game that can be played just as easily with a couple of pieces of graph paper and any item that can be propped up vertically between them.
Jenga is a test of both skill and nerve — even the adventurous can hack it by Sharpie-ing commands onto individual pieces and creating a “dare” component. It does, however, lose points for the inconvenience of setting it up, and for generating mess.
Ah yes, the game that has confused generations with regard to how orthopedic surgery actually works. I was never allowed to have Operation when I was a kid because my parents knew how noisy it was (and perhaps also knew I didn’t have the fine motor skills to make it as a surgeon). Not into surgery? Doing well in this game may also trick you into believing you are ready to become a bomb defuser.
Invented in 1977 by a dishwasher at Hideaway Pizza, in Stillwater, Oklahoma In this simple, elegant game, you attempt either to lay out a row of five pieces on a cross-hatched board or capture five pairs of your opponent’s. Bonus: The game pieces are small, rounded pieces of colored glass, that comforting heft in your hand adding to the impression that you’re playing something more elegant than, say, Chinese Checkers.
Type-A kids who were extremely committed — pathologically so, you might say — to getting all the shapes that vibrating, ticking, menacing game box would soon learn who their worst enemies were: the assholes who deliberately stalled replacing the pieces in order for the entire thing to explode. Sometimes losing is just more fun.
It’s important for all children to learn that, if they ever visit a stately home, and they end up somewhere called a conservatory, well… they might be murdered with a candlestick.
It’s rare that you can play an entire game — both guessing and answering — without actually speaking, which makes Mastermind a great choice for siblings whose ability to be civil to one another is limited.
7. Mille Bornes
Replicating the experience of taking a road trip (including its inherent impediments) using cards sounds like a very weird idea, but Mille Bornes is French. And it’s surprisingly gripping! Hoard those spare tires.
Mahjong meets rummy. But arranging small tiles on racks has much more appeal for the orderly player than messing with a bunch of boring playing cards in your hand/on a table.
5. Mexican Train Dominoes
Like running charades, this game had a brief moment among celebrities a few years back (or so I read in InStyle). A full game can consume hours of play and afford countless opportunities to screw over your fellow players — a crucial aspect of any truly addictive game.
4. Trivial Pursuit
Trivial Pursuit is, of course, a classic, and both it and I are Canadian. But when I’ve played recent editions, it has seemed to me that it, like Jeopardy!, has been dumbed down over the years. In addition, early exposure to it has caused me forever after to associate the color robin’s egg blue with my most hated category: Geography.
While I understand there are some for whom Scrabble is practically a religion, how much fun is a game for which becoming an unbeatable player requires a significant amount of studying? Bleh. I am all for being humorlessly committed to winning a game — believe me — but I draw the line at memorizing hundreds of two-letter words.
In that it requires players to invent definitions for obscure words and trick their fellow competitors into believing they really came from a dictionary, Balderdash may be actually good practice for academic writing? …Okay, it’s only good practice for bullshitting, but some might argue that’s also an important skill to learn.
Yes, it’s just Crazy 8s. But unlike the playing card version — for which everyone has their own “house rules” — Uno puts everyone on the same page in terms of gameplay and makes it easy for newcomers to jump in. It’s as playable two people as it is with ten and while we may all be divided from our fellow citizens by any number of circumstances in our lives, we are united in the rage we experience having to deal with a Draw 4 Wild card.
5. Candy Land
The only reason you’ll ever play this game is because there’s a child in the vicinity and you’re supposed to use it as a tool to teach him or her how to take turns, follow rules, and graciously accept losing. The last time I played — with my niece, who was 6 at the time — she lost and threw a temper tantrum. I feel fairly confident that this is how most rounds of this very tiresome game go.
4. Pay Day
In addition to reinforcing the orthodoxy of capitalism, it’s basically just the Game Of Life — except (bonus!) more tedious.
Conservatively I would estimate that the sarcastic “Soooooooooorry!” that follows sending an opponent back to the start of the game leads to a minimum of one (justified) homicide per year.
This game was created to provide a context for the horny teenagers of yesteryear to get their faces near each other’s boobs and butts. If you’re a child and your uncle really wants to play, don’t. And then go tell a trusted adult.
In addition to being extremely repetitive and boring, Monopoly takes forever. I am 41 years old and I sincerely can’t remember having finished a game in my life; every time we all just agree to stop because we can’t take it anymore.