One of the things that we like about so many games on the market is how they smuggle learning in through the back door. There is so much fun going on that little ones have no idea that their literacy, numeric, verbal reasoning and social skills are getting a proper workout.
So, what makes for a brilliant family board game? Well, fun has to be right up there. It also has to be something that is easy to grasp – too many rules and caveats tend to cause issues and ultimately a drift in concentration among younger players.
And we also think that an addictive game – one that no one ever wants to stop playing – is a pretty good sign. A strong educational leaning is always going to be a plus for parents too, especially for those who are finding homeschooling a challenge.
Games should also be built to last. Poor-quality components that rip, peel, sag or fray easily results in a short lifespan.
All of the games in our round-up are well made, clever and offer plenty in the way of both fun and learning opportunities.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.
A Game of Cat and Mouth
This game is part pinball, part fooseball and part magnetic-neon-cat-paw-catapults. If this sounds confusing, the reality isn’t. In fact, it couldn’t be simpler. The contents box is the board itself: just unfold and, save for popping a couple of bits and bobs in place, you’re good to go. You are essentially using your paw catapult to fling four yellow balls, one at a time, through the cat’s mouth. Your opponent is trying to do the same from the other side, until one side is holding all eight yellow balls. There are also other ways to win – such as knocking the cat’s teeth or nose out.
The box says the game is suitable for children aged seven and older, but we have a four-year-old tester who was not only delighted by the entire aesthetic and premise of the game, but she was pretty damn good at it too. It hones dexterity and introduces the concept of game strategy to young minds. It claims to be highly addictive and it is, as well as being utterly infuriating if you’re on a losing streak. We suspect parents to carry on playing this long after their children are in bed – we know this because we did! So clever, so unusual and so much fun.
Buy now £18.00, Exploding Kittens
Pop To The Shops
With dice, counters and money, this is a brilliant introduction to board games for any youngster. Our four-year-old tester was tickled pink with the pretext of this game, which was to go shopping at one of four shops and buy anything from an ice lolly to a sausage roll.
This is a very sly way of making maths fun for youngsters who think numbers are boring. It is also a brilliant way of working with currency, understanding the exchange element of buying and selling and offering the chance for a spot of role play: “Good morning Mr Greengrocer, please may I have those strawberries?”
Buy now £10.75, Orchard Toys
30 Seconds is a game which tests both descriptive skills, comprehension and general knowledge against the clock. A player will select a card on which is written five things – landmarks, celebrities, films, famous brands and more – and they have just 30 seconds to describe them to the other players without saying the actual words in the name or using rhyme to help.
This requires a minimum of four players, which might be a drawback for smaller households, but it is a great game for older kids and teens – especially those who have a decent grasp of pop culture, global affairs and geography. It inspires an air of mild hysteria as players clamour to guess correctly. We especially liked that there was the traditional counter-and-dice element to the game, with players not only racing to get all of the names on their cards guessed correctly, but also to get to the board’s finishing line first.
Buy now £29.99, Amazon
Pass the Bomb: The Big One
This is the latest game in the popular Pass the Bomb series and the principle is the same: complete tasks before the unstable timebomb detonates in your hands.
It is the perfect game for wordsmiths as three out of the five challenges are to do with literacy – rhyming ability, word arrangement and categorisation are all under scrutiny as well as there being puzzle and dexterity challenges. Can you complete your challenge and pass the bomb on in time? Well, it is trickier than it appears and the anticipation of the explosion makes all the players super jittery. Expect hysterical screaming when the bomb does go off. A brilliant way of getting young people to sharpen their literacy skills without them even realising it.
Buy now £22.00, Gibsons
An absolute classic that will never, ever get old. Although young children might enjoy pointing out letters, this is geared towards older kids, teens and, of course, adults of any generation. It is absolutely the perfect game for any budding wordsmiths.
The firing up of competitive instincts which might normally lie dormant is par for the course with Scrabble, especially in bookish families. Expect many, many arguments over what is a real word (“I’m looking that up, that’s ridiculous… oh, right… never knew that…”), but know that it is all part of the fun.
Buy now £16.00, Marks & Spencer
Beano: The Board Game
This brand-new game will be a huge nostalgia hit for parents and an introduction to the wayward Bash Street kids for children.
What we love about this board game, which is essentially a map of Beano Town, is that it permits cheekiness and naughtiness – think whoopee cushions and custard pies and hiding from the teacher – which is always exciting for youngsters. The aim of the game is to be the player to achieve the most successful pranks.
It’s vibrantly and humorously illustrated too, and best suited to players aged eight and over, but we do know of slightly younger children who have got the hang of it easily.
Buy now £29.99, Rachel Lowe
Catan is a land that you and your fellow players have just discovered. It is a brilliant place for settlers with plenty of resources. You battle and barter it out for dominance over Catan, aiming to turn small settlements into cities. This is by no means a game of chance: players need to employ fairly complex strategy by thinking ahead and anticipating opponents’ moves. This is a marathon of a game – and by that we mean it will be open and active for actual days on end – and deeply competitive.
We found that one of the main teachings from Catan is how to manage emotions in the face of disappointment. This is definitely one for older children who can concentrate over long periods of time.
Buy now £33.74, Dice & Decks
Ok, look. We know this isn’t technically a board game – it can’t possibly be because its components all come in packaging the shape and size of a banana. However, it’s virtue is that it requires no board. That is the whole point.
It’s sort of like scrabble but with a banana theme and no turn-taking. You’re in a race to use the most squares to form the most words. You’ll find yourself shouting “split”, “peel” and “rotten banana” quite a lot, which is as jolly as it sounds. With younger players the words tend to be shorter and play is slower as they get their heads around both horizontal and vertical word formation, but Bananagrams is a healthy challenge for someone of any generation.
Buy now £10.79, Zatu
Show us a person who doesn’t love Operation and we’ll show you a fantastic fibber. It’s frustrating and noisy but that’s basically the whole point of it. The board is Cavity Sam’s hospital bed, where he lies with a wealth of ailments including a broken heart and butterflies in his stomach – oh and an electrical circuit which all the players are trying not to close. Your job is to operate on Sam by removing each ailment with a pair of tweezers. However, if the metal of your tweezers hits the metal around his problem, then you’ll hear an unholy blare and Cavity Sam’s nose will flash red, indicating that it’s the next player’s turn. The winner is not the one with the most ailments secured – it is the one whose secured afflictions have the most value.
This game is lots of fun, with our seven-year-old tester instantly becoming obsessed. Younger children will be too, but be prepared for their lack of fine motor skills making them poor surgeons.
Buy now £20.00, Argos
I Saw it First
First off, this is such a beautiful-looking game. The board is comprised of six triangles which attach to each other to form a hexagon adorned with intricately illustrated creatures all hiding in plain sight. When it is their turn, a player must pick an animal disk out of a box (if we had to be critical, this was quite flimsy, so we just used the lid instead) and then all players race to find the animal on the board. The first one to see it shouts “I saw it first!” and wins the disc.
The designers of this game have been super crafty and ensured that “memorising” the location of any creature is nigh on impossible. The board is double-sided and can be pieced together in a variety of different ways. The name of the creature is also written on the discs, and we bet that you – children and adults alike – will encounter animals you never even knew existed.
Buy now £19.99, Amazon
The verdict: Family board games
A Game of Cat and Mouth wins for novelty, imagination and addictiveness – and that it appeals to all ages. But if you’re looking for something more cerebral with an educational bent for younger children, Pop To The Shops is a brilliant introduction to board games.