December 24, 2010

Cooperative Board Games for Families

Learning to lose gracefully is a valuable lesson, but as my kids grow closer to competing with me as equals, losing stings them a little more, too.

I had heard that some cooperative board games lurk in the specialty stores beyond Target and Toys R Us. This Christmas I decided to do some research to locate a new family game for my lovely spouse and me to play with our kids (10 and 12) and any visitors.

Here's how I categorize games in terms of competitiveness and cooperation:

CompetitiveThe games I grew up with like Monopoly or Sorry. I include games that encourage self-interested alliances, like teaming up on someone in Risk.
TeamsPlayers on one team cooperate against other teams. A lot of party games like Catch Phrase (one of our favorites) fall into this category.
1 vs. ManyGames in which everyone else cooperates against a single player. Scotland Yard, mentioned below, is an example.
CooperativeI think of these like group solitaire: all the players compete against the game itself. Either the team wins or the team loses. These are the games I wanted to explore this year.

The lines aren't always clear. Some games start with a common goal, but later compel players to seek their own interests. Many games that purport to be cooperative feature a "traitor mechanic," revealing mid-game that one player is actually working against the others.

A friend curious about non-competitive games asked me to share my notes, so here's my list, with the games I like best for our family near the top. and Games Magazine are great resources, as well as many other online reviews and vendors. These personal notes contain mistakes, I'm sure. I'll try to correct any that are reported.

I included links to Amazon for some of my favorites. For the others, try my favorite online source for boardgames: House Full of Games.

Once we've played any of these, I'll post an update.

Space Alert

DurationLess than 30 minutes
Approx. cost$39
ThemeThe board is a schematic of a spaceship. Players move around it and respond to various threats, working together to keep the spaceship intact. It comes with a CD that announces alerts and keeps the game on schedule. The CD's a bit gimmicky, but fun, I hope.
I likedShort play-length. It's hard to find blocks of 90 minutes or more, and it's very hard to invite guests to a long game, because it takes a while to teach it, and generally people can't enjoy a game fully the first time anyway.
I didn't likeI'm concerned it might be a little abstract for my 10-year old, but I think the spaceship-under-threat theme will appeal to her.

Forbidden Island

Duration30 minutes
Approx. cost$14
ThemePlayers struggle to capture treasures from a sinking, tropical island and to evacuate everyone to safety. The island is made up of tiles randomly arranged each game. The difficulty is adjustable.
I likedApparently Pandemic is hugely popular, so I take it as a good sign that folks refer to this as Pandemic-lite. It's also inexpensive.

Scotland Yard

Duration45 minutes
Approx. cost$27
ThemeOne player is a crook. Others are detectives. The board is a map of London, showing subway stops and train stations and the like. The detectives are trying to position themselves at the same place as the crook to catch him, but all they have to go on are clues about what kind of transportation he took.
I likedI sneaked this game in because I remember it fondly from my own childhood. It's easy to learn, and I like that it supports up to six players.
I didn't likeIt's not really a cooperative game; it's a 1 vs. Many kind of game. Is there a risk that one detective will dominate the other players and tell them where to move?

Castle Panic

Players1—6 (best with 4?)
Duration60 minutes
Approx. cost$25
ThemePlayers represent archers, knights, and swordsmen defending a cardboard castle as monsters close in. Players position themselves and trade cards that enable them to fight the monsters.
I likedVery easy to learn. It's possible to play this in a truly cooperative fashion, although the primary game is designed to treat the most successful defender as "the winner."
I didn't likeI'm a little concerned the compressed-cardboard castle pieces won't stand up to wear.

Shadows over Camelot

Duration90 minutes
Approx. cost$40
ThemePlayers are knights of the round table. Various threats endanger Camelot and the players go on quests to defeat them. Cards are involved.
I likedHigh-quality components. I've played some other games by Days of Wonder, and they generally do a nice job.
I didn't likeA little long for us. The reviews are mixed: people seem to love or hate this game, comparing it favorably or unfavorably to Battlestar Galactica.


Duration45—60 minutes
Approx. cost$25
ThemePlayers represent specialized roles in the Centers for Disease Control, trying to contain and cure disease outbreaks around a map of the world. Drawing and trading cards are involved. An optional $25 expansion allows for a 5th player and makes it possible to turn it into a competitive game in which one player betrays the others as a bio-terrorist.
I likedThis game is very popular with a loyal following. It's said to work well with just 2 players. The difficulty is adjustable. I think it might be a little educational too between its world map and epidemiological theme.
I didn't likeCamille wondered if the theme of deadly diseases spreading around the world is unpleasant and scary. After seeing that some players made big-eyed Sculpey figures to use in place of the wooden blocks representing the viruses, I'm not so sure, but I can see that the real-world setting might be scarier than Camelot or a spaceship.

Red November

Duration60 minutes
Approx. cost$19
ThemePlayers are on a sinking submarine with an over-heating reactor and a sea-monster outside. They cooperate to defend the vessel. The game board is a schematic of the sub.
I likedThe game seems to have a sense of humor; the art is simple and colorful. The price is attractive, and the components are said to be nice.
I didn't likeIf the ship starts to sink, I believe the game becomes every-man-for-himself as players struggle to be first off.

Break the Safe

Duration30 minutes
Approx. cost$100 new or $20 used?
ThemeThe gameboard is a building blueprint—it reminds me of Clue—with a big plastic 30-minute timer in the center. Players have to cooperate to defeat booby traps and obtain the four keys that stop the clock.
I likedVery easy to learn; good for kids. It's by Mattel—I think this one actually was in stores like Toys R Us.
I didn't likeIt's out of print—so I'd have to find it used online. Serious game-players say this game wears off quickly because it's so simple.

Lord of the Rings

Duration60 minutes
Approx. cost$35
ThemeThe players take on the roles of Hobbits, each with a special skill, and proceed through some of the action from the books, attempting to destroy the evil ring.
I likedIt's very popular. Somehow the gameboard and goals vary from one play to the next—I'm not sure how this works.
I didn't likeAs I understand it, if one Hobbit dies, the others continue to play. I'd prefer a game that we all win or lose together. Also I'm concerned the rules might be a bit complicated. Is this game really for Lord of the Rings fans?

My notes on the games below are less thorough because I dismissed these pretty quickly.

Vanished Planet

Duration60 minutes (possibly longer?)
ThemeIn a science fiction setting, something threatens the players' home planets. They trade cards and manage resources in order to defeat the threat.
I didn't likeIt had some great reviews, but the play time seemed long, and the game board, hexes on an outer space background, looked a little too abstract to appeal to our family. A review said the game appeals to "cerebral" players. Would it be too much work to enjoy or share with others?

Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective

Duration60 minutes
NotesThis old game (1981), looked really interesting: perhaps more like a Choose Your Own Adventure story or a How to Host a Murder mystery than a game. It comes with a detailed map and some books. I'm curious, but wanted a more traditional board game.

Betrayal at House on the Hill

Duration60 minutes
NotesLooks great, but somebody always acts as a traitor, and I didn't want a game that would encourage us to backstab each other, or more specifically to impugn everything our little sister says.

Defenders of the Realm

Duration90 minutes
NotesIt's reviewed very favorably, but described as a longer, more complex cousin to Pandemic. I guess if Forbidden Island is called Pandemic-Lite, then maybe this is Pandemic-Heavy? My family aren't serious gamers yet, so I avoided this one.

Minion Hunter

Duration60 minutes
Approx. cost
ThemePlayers cooperate to stop various supernatural creatures from taking over a map of America. Kind of like Buffy the Vampire-Slayer?
I likedIt looks interesting and has many fans.
I didn't likeA bit pricey and hard-to-find. Too much like Dungeons and Dragons with its tracking of statistics like "empathy" and "stalking" and "combat"? Nightmare-inducing?

Ghost Stories

Duration60 minutes
NotesPopular and favorably reviewed, but said to be very difficult. I also wonder if the theme is a little difficult to share with new players, incorporating concepts like Taoist monks and Chinese myth.

Fury of Dracula

Duration2 hours
NotesA 1 vs. Many game that is likened to Scotland Yard, but very long and possibly nightmare-inducing.

Arkham Horror

Duration2 hours
NotesThis game gets a lot of attention and seems to be sort of an iconic cooperative game. But the spooky theme and long play time aren't right for us, and the rules are said to be difficult.


Duration45 minutes
Approx. cost$15
NotesSome players say it needs seven or more people to play well. I couldn't figure out if this game is ever truly cooperative, but at least some of the time, one player betrays the others.

Witch of Salem

I saw it compared unfavorably to Arkham Horror.

Space Hulk: Death Angel

A cooperative card game that seems reminiscent of the old Alien movie. I didn't want a card game.

London's Burning

A solitaire game in which a player controls aircraft attempting to defeat the Luftwaffe in World War II. I understand there is a 2-player option, but we want at least 4 players.

Descent: Journeys in the Dark

I avoided games like this and Doom because one player serves as a "game master," like in Dungeons and Dragons. I wanted a game that everyone could play without a moderator.

Somewhere in China

The reviews seemed unfavorable.


Supports two players only?

These games all shared play-times of more than 2 hours. I know some families who dedicate that much time to gaming, but we're not among them. (Secretly I kind of wish we were . . . )
  • Battlestar Galactica
  • Middle-Earth Quest
  • Thrilling Tales of Adventure
  • Dark, Darker, Darkest
  • Chill: Black Morn Manor
  • Magic Realm

These games seemed more suitable for kids younger than our 10 and 12-year olds.
  • Max
  • Caves and Claws

These games made my initial list, but a quick check led me to believe they weren't truly cooperative.
  • A Touch of Evil: The Supernatural Game
  • Duels of Ages
  • Last Night on Earth: Zombie Game (One vs. Many)
  • Princess Ryan’s Star Marines
  • Inkognito
  • Vampire Hunter
  • Republic of Rome
  • Doom (One vs. Many)
  • Shadow Hunters
  • Svea Rike
  • Battlestations

December 21, 2010

Upwards and Upwards

When the batteries finished charging, Nathaniel came running. "I'm going to fly it now," he said with precisely the sort of confidence that prevents the army from hiring 11-year olds to pilot Apaches.

Outside the tops of the pines swayed, slightly but steadily. "I don't know . . . " I said. "It's pretty breezy. Maybe we should go out early tomorrow, when it will be still."

He sneered at such cowardice. "Dad." He pointed at the box. "It says 'Ages 8 and Up.' It's not going to be hard."

"Did you even read the instructions?" I squinted at the tiny paper and quoted to him: "Persons than fourteen younger should be precluded as piloting aircraft for crashings and dangerous."

Two minutes later I was hauling outside a sheet of plywood to serve as a landing pad. He put the tiny helicopter down and stepped back. His T-shirt billowed and rippled around his belly as he paused dramatically, the remote extended in front of him.

He pushed the throttle to full. The toy shot into the air, corkscrewing wildly. Before I could yell, he had released the control. The chopper hit the earth spinning sideways and fell over.

"Okay," I began to preach. "You have to be gentle with the controls. You should barely be touching them at . . . "

"Did you see that!?" he exploded. "It was FLYING! I told you it wouldn't be hard."

The second attempt went like the first: up eight or ten feet, then back down hard, spinning the whole time.

"Can I try?" I asked. "I want to go slow with it."

He looked at me skeptically, then shrugged and handed me the controller.

Very slowly I spun the rotors. Still on the ground, the body of the helicopter started to pirouette.

"Come on, Dad. Just fly it."

Ignoring him, I adjusted the tail rotor very slightly . . . the pirouetting grew faster . . . ah, the other way . . . yes, at last the spin was slowing down.

I hardly noticed a particularly stiff breeze until the delicate toy slid off the edge of the plywood. Its landing gear caught in the grass and a blade bit hard into the earth.

Sure enough, the plastic landing gear was split in two places. Now the helicopter couldn't even stand.

"I'm really sorry." I had broken his toy without ever leaving the ground.

He grinned. "Let's fix it!" I followed him into the house: super glue, hot glue, no success. Finally I cut a piece of packing foam, unscrewed the broken landing gear and replaced it with foam. It was bulkier than the airy plastic, but still small and lightweight.

Back outside, the breeze was an irregular wind now, erupting from different directions in unpredictable coughs.

He balanced the helicopter on our plywood. Before he even stepped away, the wind knocked it onto its side again.

I waved him away and righted it. I started to get up. "Okay, now this time try to—"

But Nathaniel wasn't going to miss his launch window. The helicopter sprang up inches past my face, corkscrewing slowly as it rose, the air batting it like a ping pong ball in a lottery machine.

At last I stopped talking. It was all up to him now.

Higher and higher. A gust sent it toward the house, but it cleared the eaves and the wind carried it over the roof.

"He'll bring it down to the driveway on the other side," I thought. "At least I won't have to get the ladder."

But he pushed on, spiraling upwards and upwards in a dizzying, wild, uncertain ascent—like the way Jules Verne imagined travel to the moon, or like how it feels to learn something new, or like the way a boy grows—over the house, past the driveway, accelerating away to the edge of the pine woods, a horizon of treetops dancing 50 feet off the ground.

We heard a crack of breaking plastic. I could just make out a splash of red swaying atop the green sea. Someday it might shake loose, but it was gone.

I turned to Nathaniel, warning myself not to lecture him but to sympathize with the loss of his new toy.

"That was great!" he beamed. "How are you going to get it down?"