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The best board games for the kids, and parents, on your shopping list

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Start ‘em young with these fantastic titles

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Charlie Hall/Polygon

The holiday shopping season is upon us, and that means the children in your life are about to be inundated with new toys. For parents, that means work. Time to clean out the toy bin and, in the dark of night, squirrel away the bottom few layers into a garbage bag for a mid-day trip to Goodwill. But while you’re making space in the playroom, why not clear off a shelf in the closet for these fantastic board games.

I promise that you’ll have a ton of fun with them as well.

Catan: Junior
Catan GmbH

Catan Junior

I don’t really like Catan. I find it tedious, with a lot of dead time between turns. My dislike could also have to do with the fact that every time I sit down to play I get stomped. So bear that in mind when I say that my number one recommendation for children’s board games this year, and every year, is Catan: Junior.

Why is this children’s version of the wildly popular franchise so good? Because it’s social, and because it moves so very fast. It’s also blessed with an excellent and concise set of rules. Best of all, like only the finest flat-packed furniture can, it makes itself clearly understood without any reading.

In Catan: Junior there are five resources: goats, gold, cutlasses, wood and molasses. The winner is the player that can construct all of their pirate lairs first. On their turn, players roll a die, collect resources and then ask the other players at the table to trade with them. Then, they build whatever they like based on the simple set of instructions listed on a purple card. You’re in and out in 30 minutes or less.

Catan: Junior does an admirable job of skipping over a lot of the complexity of the original. The robber works differently, for instance. There’s no ports to worry about. The board is smaller, and there’s also a two-player version on one side of the game board with a smaller landmass and an optional marketplace that drops the trading mechanic altogether. It’s especially handy for teaching the game to younger players.

I’ve played the game with all different ages of children, from four-years old on up, and I’m consistently impressed with how easy it is to get their little minds around it. And for the parents at the table, the highly visible tokens in front of each player make giving hints and suggestions a breeze.

The game is so popular that while it was in short supply earlier this year copies were going for more than $120 on eBay. At $30 retail, it’s a steal.

Ticket to Ride: First Journey
Days of Wonder Inc.

Ticket to Ride: First Journey

A new release for 2016, Ticket to Ride: First Journey is a children’s adaptation of the classic railway franchise designed by Alan R. Moore, the same man who designed the original in 2004. And, like Catan: Junior, it retains many of the very same mechanics as the original, making it a good on-ramp for advanced players into the adult version of the game.

Just as in other Ticket to Ride titles, players manage a handful of cards trying to gather enough train cars of the same color to complete routes between cities. By connected far-flung locations in the U.S. players earn tickets, and the first player to six tickets wins the game. Games run between 15 and 30 minutes, tops.

What makes First Journey such a joy for children is the art style. Every poker-deck sized card is lavishly illustrated, and the box art itself serves is a wonderful backdrop during every game. The oversized train cars are also perfect for little hands. Some reading is required, but with a little help getting four- or five-year olds involved shouldn’t be all that hard.

The game runs about $33 on Amazon, but is available for less on the shelves this year at Target stores.

Clank! on the floor of Gen Con 2016. Deep inside the dungeon is a market where players can purchase keys and other goodies, a la Spelunky.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

Clank!

The more time I’ve spent with Clank! the more I’ve come to enjoy it. The same goes for my six-year old daughter. And while it’s not really intended for younger audiences (the box says 13+) if you have a strong reader in the house like I do it shouldn’t be any problem at all to get them up to speed.

Clank! is a dungeon crawl where players risk life and limb delving into a dragon’s castle in search of loot. The closest approximation of the game that I can think of is the classic Dungeon, published by Wizards of the Coast. But while that game can prove to be very frustrating, especially for younger folks, Clank! allows for much more player agency.

What makes Clank! so dynamic is the core deck-building mechanic. As players adventure through the dragon’s castle, they spend resources to purchase new cards from a common pool. When they exhaust their personal decks, those new cards get shuffled into the mix. It allows each player to customize their hero in unique ways. There’s a healthy dose of screw-your-neighbor as well.

The game has a fantastic pedigree. It was introduced at this year’s Gen Con in Indianapolis, Indiana. By the end of the weekend it was the game on everyone’s lips, alongside titles such as Scythe and Dark Souls: The Board Game. It’s actually designed by Dire Wolf Digital’s Paul Dennon, the same man doing some of the heavy lifting on Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls: Legends.

Retailing for $60, it’s a bit expensive compared to the other games I’ve mentioned above. But for what you get in the box, it’s actually a fantastic deal. There’s nearly 200 cards, dozens of cardboard chits, wooden bits and a felt bag. It also cleans up well with a cleverly designed plastic insert. The game board itself is also double-sided, giving you twice the playspace.

If you’ve got a kid or two that likes to latch onto a toy or a game and play it again and again, then Clank! belongs in your library this holiday season.

Mice and Mystics

I couldn’t write up a list of great games for kids without including Plaid Hat Games’ masterpiece, Mice and Mystics: Sorrow and Remembrance. Released in 2012, it has a cult following and for good reason. It’s a light roleplaying game with fantastic miniatures and a compelling story to tell.

Mice and Mystics tells the tale of Prince Colin and a small group of friends, including a smith named Nez Bellows, the wizard Maginos, healer Tilda and others as they try to save the kingdom from the evil Venestra. There’s just one catch, though: In order to escape prison, our heroes have to transform themselves into mice.

The presentation of the game is impeccable, from the miniatures themselves to the multiple, custom tiles depicting the various rooms of the castle players must fight their way through. But it’s the narrative experience of the game that earns it a place in our list. Each play session begins with a story read aloud from the large storybook. Players grow attached to the characters, and to their quest as the stakes are ratcheted up higher and higher.

In many ways Mice and Mystics is the natural successor to the classic HeroQuest, a role-playing game released in 1989 that I and a few other members of the Polygon hold in very high regard. And, just like HeroQuest, Mice and Mystics has a bunch of expansions that keep the story going after all of the adventures in the base box have been played through. Each of them share the same lavish presentation and whimsical design as the original.

The game retails for $74.95. Beware that it’s a bit rules-heavy, and will require from some strong adult leadership in the form of a games master every time you sit down to play.

What’s missing?

I play a ton of board games every year, but the list of titles I’ve missed is much, much longer than the games I haven’t. That’s where you come in.

What’s new this year that should be included in our list of the best board games for kids? Hop into the comments below and share your thoughts, and a few links out to more information. We’ll add to this list next year based on your suggestions.

We’ve got tons of other ideas for friends and family in this year’s Holiday Gift Guide, which you can find here.