You've heard the buzz about family game night. "Good board games engage children and teach them a little something without them realizing it. They're fun, help kids develop language skills, and increase communication between family members," says Anne Smith, owner of The Toy Soldier in Fairport.
Nobody can argue against the benefits of spending more time with your family. It's squeezing it into life's rich pageant that's the kicker. But with the sky filled with clouds and the driveway filled with snow, winter affords you a great excuse to take the afternoon off and break out a game to play with the kids.
Commercially produced board games have been an American staple since the 19th century, when they started to supplement homemade games. "The game industry grew with the printing industry," explains Nicolas Ricketts, curator of board games at Strong --- National Museum of Play. "One of the first American board games was Mansion of Happiness, manufactured in Boston in 1845. Players hoped to land on virtues like honesty and temperance and avoid vices such as cruelty and ingratitude. The first player to make it to the Mansion of Happiness in the center won."
Nowadays, the mood's a little lighter thanks to games like Zingo!, priced at $14.99. It's Bingo with a twist, for two to eight players ages 4 to 8. "Zingo!is one of our best sellers," Smith says. The nifty Zingo! Zinger dispenses image tiles. When a player sees a tile that matches an image on her card, she tries to be the first to call it out and claim the tile. "Zingo!builds language and social skills, and improves short-term memory," says Smith. Zingo! Heroes, featuring Marvel Heroes characters, is available for $19.99.
If you're in a time crunch, Scrambled States of America, for two to five players ages 6 and up, only takes about 30 minutes to play. Players try to be the first to find a state that ends with a certain letter, or borders a particular state. Priced at $14.99, Scrambled States is manufactured by Gamewright, which also produces a popular line of card games for kids, including Scrambled States 2. "Gamewright's subject matter is great and their graphics are wonderful," Smith says.
Another favorite for ages 5 to adult is the strategy game Blokus, for two to four players. "It's easy to learn, but challenging to play," Smith says. Players anticipate how to fit game pieces of different shapes on the board while blocking other players. The player who fits most pieces on the board wins. Both the original Blokus, and BlokusTrigon --- a more challenging triangular version --- retail for $29.99.
Does the heavily-advertised Apples to Apples live up to the hype? "Absolutely!" says Smith. "It's a fun word association game for four to 10 players. Kids love it." In each round, one player is the judge, and the others are dealt word cards. Players choose which of their cards best describes the word on the judge's card. Oral arguments ensue, with players attempting to persuade the judge to choose their card. Several versions are available, including two versions of Apples to Apples Junior, for ages 7 and up ($17.95) and for ages 9 and up ($24.99), as well as the Party Box for ages 12 and up (29.99).
If you're a fan of the classics, "Rummikub, based on the card game rummy, but played with number tiles, is a great game for two to four players ages 8 and up," says Smith. Players try to eliminate all their tiles by forming sets of runs and groups. The original set retails for $18.99, with a deluxe set selling for $22.95.
Like so many things these days, the word game Scrabble is available in a super-sized format with more spaces, more tiles, more points and a larger board. Retailing for $34.95, Super Scrabble, best played by three or four players due to the size of the board, is a popular choice for ages 8 and up.
Scrabble certainly has the star power to back up its new super size. "Scrabble's been hugely popular since the 1950s," observes Strong's Ricketts, adding, "Richard Nixon, Carol Burnett, Sting, Keanu Reeves, Moby --- these are just some of the famous people associated with Scrabble."
As a toy store owner, Smith has seen games come and go. One of her personal favorites is Labyrinth, a classic strategy game for ages 8 and up retailing for $24.95. Players compete to be the first to collect all of their treasure cards in a maze that changes with every play. "Unlike most board games, you can play Labyrinth by yourself, or with up to four players," says Smith. Additional versions include Junior Labyrinth ($19.95), Treasure Hunt Labyrinth ($14.99) and Labyrinth --- The Card Game ($9.95).
Just like in Victorian times, your home can be a mansion of happiness this winter. Despite foreseeing a continued trend toward hand-held, electronic games kids play by themselves, Ricketts says, "Everyone benefits when the family sits down together and enjoys one-on-one communication. Nothing beats that."