It’s that time of year again. Looking for a unique present for a child or grandchild that is not only fun, but will also promote face-to-face interaction between family members? In an always-connected electronic age, tabletop games are a great way to turn the heads away from the screens and towards each other.
The past several years have seen a resurgence in new game design, and the market is full of games that will engage parents, children, and grandparents alike. Here are some recommendations straight from our family game shelf.
My advice from years past remains unchanged - A $20-$40 game that will be played over and over again over the years is a far better value than a $10 game that gets played twice and then gathers dust on the shelf.
Collect temporary gem chips to exchange for permanent gem cards, of which the more expensive earn points. Be the first to collect the right combinations of gem cards, and you earn a noble tile, earning more points. This game is a regular favorite on our family table.
(2-4 Players, 30 minutes, Ages 10 and up)
You are ancient Egyptian builders, placing stones to build pyramids, temples, obelisks, and other monuments. Where you place each stone has scoring implications, with players constantly trying to outmaneuver one another. A 2016 Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) nominee.
(2-4 Players, 40 minutes, Ages 10 and up)
Collect cards with different star types, with the goal of trading them in for constellations tiles. The more stars you need for that constellation, the more points you earn. You also earn points for placing the constellation tile near its neighbors in the night sky, and for matching gem shapes along the tile edges. And as an amateur backyard astronomer, I am appreciative of the scientific facts sprinkled liberally on both the cards and tiles.
(2-4 Players, 30-60 minutes, Ages 8 and up)
Walk the Plank
Lay down three cards, then take turns revealing as you attempt to push all the other players’ pirates off the ship, onto the plank, and into the sea. Last pirate standing wins.
(3-5 Players, 20 minutes, Ages 6 and up)
For more suggestions, here are links to my family-friendly game recommendations from years past, all of which are great fun games worthy of a spot on any family's game shelf.
Christmas 2014 Family-Friendly Game Recommendations
Christmas 2015 Family-Friendly Game Recommendations
I took a game prototype to Metatopia in November. The written feedback was glowing, with one play tester telling me he would have bought the game on the spot if it was published. Several weeks later, I received an email from a publisher about the same prototype. While the email said some complimentary things about my game, the main focus was three specific areas where he thought my game needed improvement.
We designers can guard our games as our children, and quickly become defensive when somebody points out something wrong with the games we create. As game designers, it is vital not to perceive critical feedback as a personal slight against us or the games we create.
Every year, scores of publishers are releasing hundreds of new good games. Having a good game isn’t enough. For a new game to be noticed and bought and played in a crowded marketplace, it has to be great, it has to rock. I’m glad to have play testers who tell me a game is fun; it provides the encouragement I need to continue pushing an idea forward. I’m equally as thankful for publishers who tell me what I need to hear even when I don’t want to hear it. I view this recent experience as the publisher doing me a favor in giving advice on how to move my game from good to great.
I have been (sometimes painfully) learning to welcome critical feedback. When that critical feedback is valid, for me it becomes the spark that drives a whole new round of innovation to take a game to the next level.
At an Unpub Mini playtest in the summer of 2013, JoshT commented on the long set-up time for my Firebreak prototype, while BenB told me that despite the burning forests, he never felt in any danger. Within days, both comments led to some brainstorms that resulted in crucial changes that improved the game. Without those comments, the game might have stayed a good game yet not become an even better game. (Regarding Firebreak - I have been told this game is nearing the top of the publisher’s production queue, I am hoping I’ll finally be able to announce the details in 2016.)
The developer for the publisher who signed the game originally named Attatat told me the game got a lot of things right, but they would not publish it as an abstract. I didn’t like that feedback. Yet it was that critical feedback that unlocked the creative juices that led me to finally find the right theme to match the mechanics (and get the game signed).
Lady of the Diamonds got a lot of play and the attention of an interested publisher on the final day of Unpub5. However, the publisher had reasons for wanting a different theme. I resisted changing my baby. But once again, the critical feedback made me rethink the game and an eventual change of theme that got the game signed as Lands of Oz.
With the prototype feedback from the other day, it happened much more quickly than usual. Within hours, that critical feedback resulted in brainstorms on how to try to further improve the game that tested so well at Metatopia. The critical feedback was the spark, the push I needed, to not stop but push further to take my fun game and try to make it better still.
Ill-intentioned criticism attacks and demoralizes people. Well-intentioned valid criticism can be the spark that drives us to not accept good enough and instead elevate our work to the next level.
My thanks to all those who have told me the things I need to hear about my game designs to make them even better.
Christmas season is here again. If you are a family with children, games are a great gift idea. Yet sadly, many of the larger stores continue to fill their shelves with board games that may not hold your family's interest after a few plays. My advice remains that a $20-$40 game that will be played over and over again over the years is a far better value than a $10 game that gets played twice and then gathers dust on the shelf. Many of these gems will not be at your local big box store, but can be found at your local friendly game store, or available online if you don't have a dedicated boardgame store in your area.
Why is this list so short? Because the fun family games I recommended last year are just as fun now as they were a year ago. This is one of the reasons why games can be great family presents if you choose the right ones that your family will want to play throughout every season of the year. So please feel free to also look back at last year’s list for more recommendations.
Roll For It – This game comes in either a red box or a purple box. Both are identical, except that they have four different colors of dice. One box supports up to four players, while adding the second box expands the game to 5-8 players. Players roll their 6 dice to try to match combinations shown on 3 face-up cards. You may leave dice on cards from turn to turn, in the hopes that somebody else doesn’t win that card and its points before you.
(2-4 Players, 20 minutes, Ages 8 and up)
Battle Sheep- The sheep are out to rule the pasture. Your sheep checkers begin all stacked on top of each other in the same space. On your turn, move as many as you want in any one direction. But they must move as far as they can – either to the edge of the pasture, or until they run into other sheep. The goal is for your sheep to occupy the most pasture spaces. We added this game to our family collection after a publisher I was working with on one of my own designs recommended it as an example of how a light theme can add character to an abstract game. It’s a keeper.
(2-4 Players, 15 Minutes, Ages 7 and up)
Camel Up - This game comes out often on our family game table. You are betting on a camel race. You triumph if you can make the smartest bets to earn the most money. The 5 camels stack on top of each other – whenever a camel moves, any camels on top move with it. On your turn, you can bet on which camel will be leading at the end of the current leg, or bet on the final first and last place finishers. If you don’t feel like betting on your turn, you can roll the dice to move one of the camels, or try to manipulate the outcome with oasis/desert tiles that send any camels that land on them forwards or backwards a space.
2014 Spiel des Jahres Winner
(2-8 Players, 30 Minutes, Ages 8 and up)
Lanterns: The Harvest Festival - You are decorating a lake with floating lanterns of 7 different colors. Every turn you lay a tile to float more lanterns on the lake. Each new tile gives everyone new color lantern cards corresponding to the color facing each player. You earn points for collecting 4 of a kind, 3 pairs, or one of each 7 colors.
(2-4 Players, 30 Minutes, Ages 8 and up)
Casual Game Revolution’s list of recommended casual games is another great resource for fun family Christmas presents.
Originally posted to www.hoopcatgames.blogspot.com
A good game can be a great Christmas present that gives your family hours of face-to-face time around the table throughout the years. Sadly, many better-known stores tend to stock lots of mediocre games that will only be played once or twice before being put on the shelf to never come down again. So here is my family’s list of FUN games – games that children and parents alike will keep asking to play throughout the year. Some of these games have made their way to the shelves of national chains. Others you may have to order online or find in a specialty game store. Games are like movies or books – I’d rather have two good ones then ten bad ones. So in no particular order, here is our family’s list:
Incan Gold - Explore an ancient ruin and try to earn the most treasure in
this push your luck game. Every turn you decide whether to turn around and keep your loot, or keep going to try to earn more. But if you are still in the ruin when two matching hazard cards are revealed, you lose all your treasure from that round. (3-8 Players, 20-40 Minutes, Ages 8 and up)
Gravwell – Pilot your spaceship around a spiral path to be the first to escape the gravity well. Every turn you choose a card that will move you a number of spaces either towards or away from the nearest other ship. However which ship is closest is constantly changing as other players move. So if when you choose the wrong card to play, you’ll send yourself in the wrong direction. This game is easy to learn, yet hard to master.
2014 Mensa Select Game
(2-4 Players, 20-35 Minutes, Ages 15 and up, although in our family's opinion 12-year olds have no problems learning this game)
Monopoly Millionaire Deal – Unlike its namesake, this is a quick card game. The cards are a mix of cash, properties, actions to either make others pay you rent or take other players’ cash or properties. Gather a
million dollars’ worth of cash cards to win. Watch out, the tide can turn quickly in this fast-paced game.
(2-5 Players, 10-20 Minutes, Ages 8 and up)
Fill The Barn- Play your cards to plant & harvest crops to earn the most money. Except the barn is not big enough to store all the crops, so make sure you harvest before your opponents. Use droughts to prevent harvests, junk to fill valuable barn slots, or mice to eat a harvest and make more room for your harvest. (Full disclosure, this game is one of my creations).
(2-6 Players, 30-40 minutes, Ages 8 and up)
Ticket to Ride – Connect railroad routes across a map of the U.S. and Canada.
It’s fun watching your railroad spread, just beware that your opponents
don’t spread first onto tracks that you need to complete your routes.
2004 Spiel des Jahres winner
(2-5 Players, 60 Minutes, Ages 8 and up)
Forbidden Island and/or Forbidden Desert – These are both cooperative games where players work together rather than compete against each other. In Forbidden Island the challenge is to gather the cards to retrieve treasures from an island before it sinks beneath the waves. In the sequel Forbidden Desert, you must find the parts to assemble a flying machine before they are buried by the desert sands while keeping all members of your party properly hydrated. Forbidden Island is the easier of the two challenges.
(2-5 Players, 30-45 Minutes, Ages 10 and up)
Qwirkle – This is very simple game with very simple rules, yet still has
strategic depth. Make lines of tiles that share either the same color or
same shape. Six in a row is called a Qwirkle and earns extra points.
2011 Spiel des Jahres Winner
(2-4 Players, 30-45 Minutes, Ages 6 and up)
For Sale – This quick property flipping auction game plays in two rounds.
During the first round, players bid on different-valued properties. Beware opponents who drive up the bid and then pull out and stick you to overpay. The properties bought during the first round are sold off during the second round, with players jockeying to secure the best offer prices available. The winner is whoever has the most money when the dust clears.
(3-6 Players, 20-30 Minutes, Ages 8and up)
For other great gift ideas, we highly recommend Casual Game Revolution’s list of recommended casual games. While I have not played every game on this list, I can tell you that I have never bought a game from this list that turned out to be a dud. There are a few dud games I have bought for my family, and those mistakes could have been avoided had I checked the CGR recommended list first. My final word of advice: a $25-$40 game that is played over and over again is a far better deal than a $8 game you only play twice.
To read this blog entry, please go to http://casualgamerevolution.com/blog/2014/01/the-true-origin-of-monopoly-lizzie-magie-and-the-landlords-game _
Originally posted to www.hoopcatgames.blogspot.com
This blog is for the benefit of any who are wondering why we haven’t published Attatat yet. Or why we as a proclaimed self-publisher are submitting an entry to the Unpub4 54-card challenge sponsored by Dice Hate Me Games. Or why we are excited about the number of publishers who are attending Unpub4.
After much careful consideration, thought, and prayer, HoopCAT Games is moving in a different direction. We are moving away from self-publishing and seeing whether we can publish our designs through other game publishers.
We will enter 2014 with 3 unpublished prototype games:
- Attatat - This path-building, tile-removing abstract has fared extremely well in Unpub playtesting;
- FireBreak - Our cooperative game where players work together to save a park from a forest fire has been rating even higher with Unpub playtesters, and;
- Lady of the Diamonds - Our entry to the 54-card challenge entry is good enough to make the rounds on the Unpub circuit in the Spring if it doesn’t catch the eye of the competition judges first.
Our goal as we move into 2014 is to find publishers for these games.
The self-publisher must be good at a lot of things, then well-connected and adequately-financed for those things which they are not personally good at.
Having a great game is important, being willing to work tirelessly is essential, yet those two things are not enough to guarantee success. Art and graphic design also matter. You must pay attention to the production and shipping and warehousing details. Marketing is just as important if not more important than the quality of the game itself. Self-publish a fun game and you will receive positive reviews, yet good reviews alone are not enough to ensure your game will fly off the shelf and onto game tables.
We realize that there are other small publishers out there who are far better than us at picking the right artist, arranging the production details, running a Kickstarter campaign, using social media effectively, and marketing on a limited budget. Attatat, FireBreak, and Lady of the Diamonds are all great games. We want them to be all they can be. And allowing those games to reach their full potential probably means our letting go of some of the control and letting others with different strengths than us publish our games.
We do not regret self-publishing Fill The Barn. It was an accomplishment that we will continue to treasure in our family memories many years from now. We developed the idea, found playtesters, worked with the graphic designer to get it ready for commercial publication, coordinated details with the manufacturer, arranged the freight shipment from the Michigan factory, arranged for the warehousing, contacted reviewers who wrote positive things about our very first game, visited area stores who put our games on their shelves, then found a distributor who had the national & international reach to get our games places far beyond where we could go. It was a huge task with a myriad of smaller individual tasks, and we pulled it off to self-publish our first game. We also learned first-hand some valuable lessons along the way.
Yet if our next games can do even better in the hands of others who are stronger in other key areas, we don’t want to hold our games back from reaching their full potential. Our HoopCAT logo may not appear on the next games we help to create. Yet while our name may no longer be on them, trust us when we say our hearts will always go in them.
Keys to a Good Family Board Game
originally published to hoopcatgames.blogspot.com
Our goal at HoopCAT Games is to create fun family games – games that parents and children can enjoy together. So we have had to give some thought to what characteristics are important to a good family game. There are lots of good games out there, yet only some of those good games work well with a family. So what qualifies a good game to also be a good family game? Here is our list: Length, Complexity, and Balance.
Length –Family games must consider how much time the average family with children (and school, youth soccer, baseball, and who knows what else) has in their schedule for a family game. Also, what is the attention span of that family’s children? There can be such a thing as too long. Children will most likely tire of a too-long game before the parents do. While our HoopCAT family (2 sons, ages 11 & 15) can stick with an engaging game for as long as 90-120 minutes, our family schedule often doesn’t permit more than 60 minutes for a game. When we design family games, we aim for 30-60 minutes to fit the busy family.
Complexity - As a teen, I loved Avalon Hill games, and would study the lengthy rule books even between games. While a hardcore gamer may enjoy repeated readings of a 10 or 20 page rulebook, it is a bad idea for a family game. For a family game, the rules must be easily grasped, even by a child. We believe that at least one player reading the rule book once before the first play should be mandatory for any new game. However, our rule of thumb for family games is that you should almost never need to refer back to the rule book after the 3rd play. If a family has to frequently keep going back to the rule book even after the first few plays, that game might not be a good family game.
The topic of math also needs mention under complexity. Light math has a place in family games. Games can be a great way for children to practice basic addition or even multiplication facts while having fun. However, we feel that calculator math has no place in a family game. I have played games where you had to add 32+40+12, divide the sum by 4, then four separate further calculations to divide that quotient by 7, 12, 6,and 8, dropping the remainder and rounding down. Some can keep that straight in their head, others cannot. And while hardcore gamers may enjoy that kind of math as part of their gaming experience, excessively complex math calculations are not a good fit for a fun family game.
Balance – For a family game, this can be one of the toughest design challenges. When designing adult games, a designer can make some presumption of equal ability. That same presumption does not hold when designing a game that an 8 year old will play with a 13 year old. A younger brother that has no hope of ever beating their older sister may quickly lose interest in that game. The most common solution to artificially balance the differences in player skill is to add some element of randomness (often through either dice or cards). This randomness will sometimes work to hinder a more-skilled player and help a less-skilled player. Yet, as designers, we still want the game to reward good player decisions and have consequences for bad player decisions. So the family game has to strike the right balance in how much the random effects the gameplay - too little, and lesser-skilled players will feel it is impossible for them to win, but too much, and skilled players will feel they have been cheated.
A game must have the right length, complexity level, and balance to qualify as a good family game.
There is one more important element–fun. But how to make a family game “fun” is a much harder and far less tangible topic.
The HoopCAT family loves family game time! We continue to enjoy our own family games after many plays (Fill The Barn, AtataT, and some new prototype ideas we play test as a family to find the winners). Other family games that we find ourselves often playing as of late include Apples to Apples, Forbidden Island, Qwirkle, and Ticket to Ride.
This blog was originally posted to www.hoopcatgames.blogspot.com
Last month, HoopCAT Games took the plunge with our first order to manufacture Fill the Barn, our very first family board game.
We had asked for quotes from different sources first, some American, some Asian. Not surprisingly, we learned that we could make Fill the Barn for a lower price if we chose a Chinese factory over an American factory.
Yet when we found a US company who could meet the price we needed to make our numbers work, we chose to go with Made in the USA.
Like so many others, we know friends and family members who have found themselves unemployed as downsizing and the shift to overseas production leaves fewer jobs in our country. It breaks our hearts to see people who want to work, and yet there are not enough jobs to go around. So in some ways, it was an easy decision to choose a US company who was in our price range even when it wasn’t the lowest offer.
But will it prove to be a sound business decision for a fledgling new company?
While “Made in USA” sounds nice, purchase decisions often come down to who has the lowest price. That is when we all decide with our pocketbooks and wallets. We could have offered Fill the Barn for a few dollars less if we had made our game in China. Will families in these tight economic times be willing to pay that few dollars more for Fill the Barn because we chose US production? In a few weeks we will start to find out.
This blog originally posted at www.hoopcatgames.blogspot.com
I’ve loved games all my life. As a child I started with classic board games, and even when I couldn’t find anybody to join me, I’d still pull a game out and play all sides. As a teen, I moved onto Avalon Hill strategy games, and would read the lengthy rulebooks over and over even after I had them memorized. As a young adult, I was thrilled by the advantages of computer strategy games – artificial intelligence opponents who were always available, no possibility of ever mistakenly misinterpreting a rule, and boards where the map or opponent’s pieces could truly remain hidden.
And then our two sons were born, and by a few years later, I found myself wondering what we used to do with all that time. Fortunately, both sons also love games, and needless to say, they have never had to twist Dad’s arm to join in a family game. Years later, I’ve returned to enjoying the same board games I fondly remember from my childhood. Every Christmas, every birthday, we’ve looked to build our family’s game library – yet after a few years found that while there are always hot new computer and console games lining the department store and toy store shelves, the board game shelves change little from year to year. (A very important disclaimer: There are fresh innovative family board games out there, and we’ve been very pleased with some new additions to our family’s game library - but you have to know where to go to find them).
So why did we start making family board games?
This past summer, our younger son (the “T” in HoopCAT) received a department store gift card for $25 from Grandma for his birthday. He marched to the game section, and after some looking, picked out a new game not already in the family collection. Looking over the box, it was not a game that Mom or I would have ever bought for him. We questioned the value for money of the purchase. But it was his $25 gift card, so in the end agreed to the purchase (figuring at worse it would make a good life lesson). We got home, he excitedly read the rules, put it together, and as father and son, we played the shiny new game he had proudly bought with his birthday gift card.
It was one of the worst games I ever played. Movement around the board was painfully slow, with little opportunity for anything to happen, and little to no opportunity for a player to affect the outcome. The game had a gimmick that wore off before we had finished it the first time. I kept my grown-up opinion to myself, thinking if my child likes it, that is all that matters. My son never asked to play it again, and two weeks later, he placed this new game on the pile of things to give to charity.
As a parent and consumer, I was mad. If my wife or I had been foolish enough to plunk down $25 for that game, I merely would have been annoyed. If my child had only spent $5-$10 of his money, I might not have been as steamed. But here was a game that never should have seen the shelf of a store priced at $25 and targeted to children. And in my indignation, I had that wild thought – “Even I could make a game better than that!”
It started as an idea of I’ll design and make two custom games (one for each son) as a memorable Christmas present. And then the game ideas kept coming, and the whole brainstorm continued to snowball. Before that summer had ended, my younger son and I sat down early one Saturday morning to play the very first game of Fill the Barn. His first feedback was the words any new game maker most wants to hear – can we play it again? My crude homemade prototype game with clip art on self-print business cards had just beat out the gift card game. Later that weekend, Mom and older son (the "A" inHoopCAT) joined us for the first-ever four-player game of Fill the Barn. Several days (and lots of prayers) later, my wife and I made the decision to form HoopCAT Games.
Will a new family board game company succeed in the era of electronic gaming? That’s for you to decide...