How we might help

I’m thinking about writing up something suggesting tabletop games for parents of elementary school kids who are home for a while. Not really for us, but to have something we could share with our local schools. I’ll put my rough draft below, but I’m interested in the thoughts of all of you on how I can improve it, whether there’s something you think would be particularly good to have on there, etc. I’d particularly like to suggest games they might already have the supplies to play, and games which might be able to entertain kids without their parents’ involvement. Thoughts?

Games to play while quarantined with children

With so many schools and workplaces closing indefinitely, there are a lot of parents who’ll be at home with their children and will turn to board games. Some favorites from my family include:

Nessos (3-6 players)—though the official production is lovely, you can play this quite simple bluffing game with a standard deck of cards. A single decision encapsulates the drama and joyous tension of the game: you have 33 points, just seven shy of winning. But you also have two Charon cards, and if you get one more, you’ll lose. Your daughter passes you a card face-down and tells you it’s a nine, but the corners of her mouth twitched as she said it. Do you trust her and take the card, hoping she was telling the truth? Are you confident enough that she’s lying to give it back to her (giving her a whopping nine points if she was honest)? Or do you simply pass the card on to the next player, adding your own card to the stack? Cockroach poker is an excellent alternative in this category.

Sprawlopolis (1-4 players)—you can buy this very small game either pre-printed or as a pdf you can print at home. So, like Nessos, it’s very friendly for those caught off guard by a quarantine who need something new pronto. It’s a cooperative city-building puzzle with immense replayability due to rotating sets of goals each game. Because it can be played solo, it had the potential to entertain a lone kiddo. Under other circumstances, I’d laud its easy portability, but that’s not going to be doing us much good for a while.

Villainous (2-6 players)—lovely artwork and elegant pieces accompany a game that introduces a lot of concepts from more complicated games. Some kids just delight in being the bad guy, each pursuing their own goals and hindering other by playing heroes to block others’ plans. While it can run long at higher player counts, it’s very rewarding to see an observant child realize why certain cards have the effects they do, and there’s impressive variety available between the base set of six characters and three standalone expansions of three each. A superb example of licensing which enhances the game.

Unmatched (2-4 players)—another gorgeous production, Unmatched uses a brilliantly streamlined system to represent battles between legendary fighters and their sidekicks. Hand management and timing are key to making the most of your opportunities, so Unmatched is a marvelous tool for teaching those who tend to resist reflection to slow down and consider consequences. But, with games usually lasting only 20 minutes or so, being punished for one’s mistakes tends not to linger in resentment, but instead encourage trying again, perhaps with a different hero. Like the villains from Villainous, each plays very differently. While there’s plenty of variety in the four-player base set of King Arthur, Medusa, Sinbad, and Alice in Wonderland, you can try out the system more cheaply with the standalone expansion of Robin Hood vs. Bigfoot, and my favorite character, Bruce Lee, comes in his own solo expansion.

ICECOOL (2-4 players)—sometimes, it’s helpful to have a game which is a bit less cerebral, and relies on dexterity rather than pure analysis. This game features penguin students running around their school searching for fish to snack on, but you move your oddly-weighted piece by flicking it. Skilled players can make their penguins jump, corner, and stop at just the right points, so ICECOOL can play the valuable role of occupying a lone child in practice for quite some time. And, for less dexterous parents like myself, it also offers the opportunity to lose to one’s children without throwing the game. Pitchcar and Pitchcar Mini are more expensive alternatives which have substantial value as track-building toys. Crokinole goes a step further, and is best regarded as a competitor to a billiard table rather than a board game, but is likely the classiest option for flicking small game pieces, and a good board is a work of art.

Tokaido (2-4 players)—a gentle game about touring feudal Japan which gives players points for things like seeing beautiful views and taking baths. If anxiety is getting to you, this pleasant journey might ease your mind for an hour or so. PARKS is a reputedly similar, more recent game with stunning art depicting U.S. National Parks, but availability has been an issue.

Set (any number of players)—I often recommend Set. It’s a simple perceptual puzzle, but it does something superb few other games can manage: not only does it accommodate as many players as you can cram around the table, players can leave or join partway through without ruining the game for others. An absolute standout for more chaotic households.

KeyForge (2 players)—Richard Garfield, designer of probably the world’s most profitable card game (Magic: the Gathering), has seen his flagship accomplishment inspire numerous other designs. KeyForge incorporates much of the implicit criticism of many of them, packing the tactical complexity of Magic into a more streamlined, kid-friendly game. It’s most exciting innovation is that each player has a unique deck, but no one needs to spend time and money amassing a collection and building those decks from it. Instead, each deck is provided with an algorithmically-generated mix of cards, all with a deck name and graphic unique to that deck printed on the back of each card in it.

Pandemic: Fall of Rome (1-5 players)—cooperative games suit compulsory family time, and the premier co-op for years has been Pandemic. The rules aren’t overly complicated, the challenge is easy to vary to taste, and you even learn a bit of geography, sort of. But if it’s hitting a bit close to home, you might consider the spin-off game which adapts its mechanisms to barbarians invading Ancient Rome. Less sophisticated gamers might prefer the fairly similar Forbidden Island.

Other options to consider:

One way that games can form the basis of a broader (and more time-consuming) hobby is to involve more creative labor, usually through either inventive fiction or small crafts. Role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons fall into the first category; while D&D itself is now in its fifth edition, and offers pretty smooth on boarding via its <a href=>Starter Set as well as massive community support, there are other options. The My Little Pony RPG, Tails of Equestria, offers a similarly magical adventure in a well-known setting, but with a simpler system which puts more emphasis on non-violent resolution. Getting your children into writing the backstories of their characters, or even building adventures, is a terrifically appealing option for developing creativity and storytelling skills. Those who enjoy setting the stage may wish to paint miniatures or create terrain, skills which overlap substantially with tabletop miniatures games like Star Wars: Legion, Frostgrave, or the dreaded Warhammer.


Great list!

So far, we’ve played a number of games of Pandemic (and have only won once) and have played a couple scenarios in Tales of Equestria. I’m sure my game library will be getting a good workout over the next few weeks though and I will update accordingly.

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Couple of other suggestions that work with my brood (7/6/6 … twins are fun:)

  • Sleeping Queens - cheap card game - someone here mentioned it and my kids can play together.
  • Unstable Unicorn - great for reading as well as they don’t use a lot of different words
  • my little scythe - kids can play this as a trio and it is hilarious to watch
  • my first Stone Age - same as scythe
  • ecosystems - we play as a family, kids have only played 4-5 times so far and love building an ecosystem. The maths and scoring is very hard, which is why it is family level.
  • Monopoly Deal - they can play as a trio. Again a small card game.

Hmm. I might have pushed me hobby on to them after reflecting on the above.


With my 7 yo, the two big games right now are Sleeping Queens and Ticket To Ride: First Journey.

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Oh, and I should add Gaslands.

I was just looking at your list and had never seen Unstable Unicorns before. I just looked it up and it says it is for age 14+? This is good for 7yo?

About the only way I’d recommend Unstable Unicorns is as an Uno alternative for when you need a game with such limited decision space that kids who need a mental respite can play without adult intervention. It’s honestly not bad for that, but I hated playing it. So I should think about what my goals are for the piece.

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If you need to keep your kids on track, look for the app Habitica. You can also just use the website. It turns to-do lists into an RPG.

I’m still setting my kids’ lists up, but here is an example of how it works:

  1. I set up a daily activity of reading for 30 minutes. They get a notification for this. If they do it, they get Exp for their avatar and earn 1 gold.

  2. I also set up “read for 30 minutes” as a habit. These are not mandatory but can be done repeatedly. So if my kids keep reading, they can keep leveling up and earning gold.

  3. The in-game gold shop offers things to dress up your avatar, like swords, gear, clothes, etc. and also let’s you buy pets. You can also set your own rewards so, for example, my kids can spend 10 gold for an hour of Minecraft.

It is a neat app and I’m looking forward to getting creative with things my kids can do and rewards that they can earn.