I’ve spent the last five years raising a game geek, I mean child, and I’m here to share what’s worked and what hasn’t worked for me. Obviously every child is completely different, so your mileage may (and almost certainly will) vary, but I have a few thoughts that I think may be reasonably universal. I’m going to organize this chronologically because I think that each phase of gaming development builds on the previous phase. You have to learn to walk (i.e., take turns, lose graciously, roll a die, recognize colors / shapes, and count) before you can run!
18 Months: First Steps
- First Orchard
I would definitely recommend starting as young as possible with a game like First Orchard by Haba. While this game has almost no decisions, it is a critical starting point for getting your child comfortable with taking turns, rolling a die, identifying colors, manipulating game pieces, and potentially losing. I’d suggest setting out the game and just playing with the pieces without any rules at first to familiarize your child with the components before eventually adding in the rules when they seem ready. The key skill, as far as I can tell, based on my sample size of one, is patience. For a child to play First Orchard (or any board game), they need to develop a level of patience that enables them to sit still while someone else acts. This is not easy with squirmy little ones, and it requires a lot of patience on the part of the adult too. I think the other key is not to force it. Let the child come to the game, rather than pushing the game on a child that would rather be running around or playing free-form with the pieces.
I recently had a debate with a friend about Candyland, which I found myself in the surprising position of defending as a game that could be perfectly suited for introducing a young child to the concept of boardgames. While Candyland is mind-numbing and you should probably stack the deck to keep it from dragging on too long, the game can still serve a valuable function of introducing children to the basic fundamentals of taking turns, patience, losing, recognizing colors, and manipulating game pieces. I would choose First Orchard to teach these skills, but if you own Candyland already or you’re on a tight budget, then Candyland will serve the same function, albeit without the die rolling aspect or the minimal decision-making in First Orchard.
2 Years: Dice & Dexterity
- Hungry as a Bear
- Go Go Little Penguin
- Go Away Monster
- My Very First Games: Animal Upon Animal
- Loopin’ Louie
After getting a good handle on First Orchard, I would introduce these five games in roughly the order above. While I was skeptical of Hungry as a Bear, my child really took to it. He loved practicing feeding the bear, and I enjoyed watching him gradually improve at this dexterity element. We both adored Go Go Little Penguin, and it is probably my #1 most recommended children’s game to date for all families. It is such a perfect game for budding gamers to improve counting skills, die rolling, and turn taking. I also suggest starting Go Go Little Penguin with modified simple rules that use only one penguin piece per player before later adding the complexity of the second penguin piece. Changing rules on the fly to make games simpler is a must for this age group!
After Hungry as a Bear and Go Go Little Penguin, I suggest broadening their dexterity collection with Animal upon Animal and Loopin’ Louie, which were both a huge hit. The last game above is Go Away Monster, which I would not introduce to your child until after the concept of “monsters” has already seeped into their consciousness through other media. No sense combating a fear that doesn’t yet exist. But once they know generally about the idea of monsters, this game is truly phenomenal. Go Away Monster is not only a good game, but it also serves an invaluable function of empowering children to get rid of monsters. We made a habit of chucking the monster tiles across the room, which made the game a blast and really emphasized the core concept. Aside from Go Go Little Penguin, I think that Go Away Monster may be my second-most recommended children’s game of all time!
3 Years: Memory & Tiles
- On the Hunt for Dinos
- Bubble Bath Bunny
I think this is a good age to start trying out memory games. I found that Sherlock and On the Hunt for Dinos worked best for my family, but I could easily see Bubble Bath Bunny working better for others. All three games add a new mechanism to your child’s repertoire, and they help hone a useful skill in a really fun way. I particularly love the way that Sherlock’s difficulty level can easily scale based on how many cards you add to the circle of facedown cards. We started Sherlock with around five cards before gradually scaling up to seven or eight. On the Hunt for Dinos is the perfect memory game for any dinosaur-loving toddler in your life.
- Brandon the Brave
This is also a good time to start playing with tiles. Brandon the Brave was a definite hit, but I think he has enjoyed Carcassonne even more. We have not played Carcassonne with the actual rules though, and I think that’s the key to gradually immersing children in board games. We play without any meeples or wooden pieces at all. Instead, we just take turns adding tiles to a growing map, trying to make a nice-looking countryside. It’s basically like a fun, cooperative, fairly simple jigsaw puzzle that includes taking turns. I’m sure you could get a kids version of Carcassonne, but I already owned the regular one, and I didn’t want to buy another game if I could help it. Plus my kid loves the idea of getting to play one of the grown-up’s games!
- Princess Magic Fairy
- Dino World
These are a few other games that were hits at this age, which did not fit neatly into my heading above. We played so many games of Princess Magic Fairy and Monza! We invented our own rules for Princess Magic Fairy to make the game a bit easier, forgiving, and cooperative. Monza was a long-time favorite! And Monza is a game that works as is without any rules adjustments. Catch and Dino World also saw a fair amount of play, and while I would not say that they’re core by any means to the progression that I’m proposing here, they are nice if you need a bit more variety or have a child for which those themes might particularly resonate. Obviously the theme and artwork of any game, no matter how pasted on, will be a big draw for children this age.
4 Years: Deduction & Dexterity
- Dragon’s Breath
- Giro Galoppo
- Set Junior
- Igloo Pop
If I knew a 4-5 year old that needed a present, then Dragon’s Breath and Outfoxed would absolutely be my go-to purchases! We played those two games so much for a long time. I loved watching my kid gradually learn how to pick better colors in Dragon’s Breath, starting from a place of just always picking red because it was his favorite, to eventually analyzing the current structure and trying to actually predict what color would net him the most points. And the joy of watching a kid comprehend Outfoxed, learning to rule in or rule out certain foxes based on various attributes, is one of the great pleasures in life. I might honestly pick Outfoxed as the single best children’s board game of all time. This category encompasses a very broad concept of deduction, so I’ve also included learning to deduce which card to play in Giro Galoppo, which number to guess in Igloo Pop, and which combinations form legal sets in Set Junior. I would put Dragon’s Breath and Outfoxed head and shoulders above the competition in this field as the best starting points far and away, but the others are good for adding variety.
- Shaky Manor
- Bugs in the Kitchen
- Gulo Gulo
If you’re following this plan, then you’ve already introduced several dexterity games at age two above. Now it’s time to expand your child’s dexterity collection with some more gems. My kid’s favorite obviously changes with some regularity, but Shaky Manor has been named favorite on probably more occasions over the years than any other game. The beauty of Shaky Manor is that it is so easy to adjust the difficulty, so that the grown-up can try as hard as they want and the outcome can still be reasonably 50-50. I started by giving my kid only 1 treasure cube, then eventually 2 treasure cubes, whereas I used 3-4 treasure cubes, plus extra monsters. Bugs in the Kitchen is the other speed-based game in this set of games that you should definitely pick up because I expect that almost all kids will adore this game. Gulo Gulo and Icecool do not measure up to Shaky Manor or Bugs in the Kitchen in my experience, but both have gone over fairly well for variety. Lastly, I would not of course recommend buying Crokinole just to play with your kid given its price, but if you already own Crokinole, then your kid will probably take to it around this age. Regardless, do yourself a favor and make sure to pickup Shaky Manor and/or Bugs in the Kitchen for some great silly fun!
5 Years: Reading & Reasoning
- Trash Pandas
- Pyramid of Pengqueen
- Magic Labyrinth
These have been the best board games for my current five-year-old so far. Trash Pandas has compelled him to improve his reading to comprehend the cards that he adores. The art is so incredibly good for kids (and adults) to enjoy. Draftosaurus and Pyramid of Pengqueen require a good deal of reasoning, but I think your kid can gradually get the hang of them, especially if you start cooperatively to introduce the concepts in both games. Magic Labyrinth can sometimes be frustrating, but you can ease them in with significantly fewer walls. These games can feel like a stretch at first, but with patience and making sure you’re only trying them on days that they’re in a good headspace, you can begin to see remarkable progress on these sorts of strategy games. I’d definitely suggest playing with open hands in both Trash Pandas and Draftosaurus, both to facilitate your child’s ability to manipulate the game pieces and to facilitate kibitzing to gently aid your child in decision-making.
- Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters
- Zombie Kidz Evolution
- Fireball Island
- Go Go Gelato
Cooperative games like Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters and Zombie Kidz are a real blessing for when you want to work together. Fireball Island is pure nostalgia for me because it was a childhood favorite of mine in the late 1980s, but the kinetic action (especially with the spider expansion) is a joy for all involved. Kissenschlacht is a more obscure dexterity game that has gone over surprisingly well (although his tendency to throw the mini-pillows far and wide makes clean-up particularly challenging), and Go Go Gelato is one that I don’t particularly enjoy, but which my child has requested on many occasions, perhaps due to his enormous love of ice cream. If you’re only going to get one game from this grouping, then make it Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters for sure. I think that Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters will build the base on which we can eventually move to Forbidden Island / Forbidden Desert and then Pandemic / Ghost Stories.
- Maus Nach Haus
- Rhino Hero
- Jungle Smart
- Dr. Microbe
- Rat-a-tat Cat
- Enchanted Tower
- Valley of the Vikings
There have of course been some games that did not work so well for us along the way. These are nine games that we tried, which did not pan out in our experience. Goldesel was too dull, whereas Maus Nach Haus was way too hard. Rhino Hero just didn’t grab him and was maybe too subject to fall over easily, while Polizei-Alarm has been too hard to get the magnets to work consistently for him. Jungle Smart probably requires a couple more years, and Dr. Microbe was almost as dull as Goldesel. Rat-a-tat Cat, which I know most families seem to adore, was just kind of dry and not at all engaging for him. Enchanted Tower and Valley of the Vikings are also very popular, but did not grab my kid, and he’s never really wanted to sit through a game of either, despite several attempts at each. I think the themes of the various dinosaur and animal games with which we’ve had success have certainly helped, and that sometimes a game that works for most families just won’t work for yours.
The last thing I’ll say is that I’ve found great success in saying yes when he wants to play a new grown-up game that has just arrived. I had enormous trepidation when he expressed interest in trying Wingspan, Spirit Island, and Root when they arrived, for instance. But I managed to invent very simplistic rules on the fly, and he loved getting to try a “grown-up game.” For Wingspan, we simply drew some random birds, rolled the dice to collect food, and then played birds with our collected food. For Spirit Island, we basically just found components with matching colors and symbols so that we could pair them up. And for Root, we just added some units to the map each turn, marched them around, and rolled for combat. Regardless though, I think it can only help nurture your child’s love for board games to invite them into the hobby by sharing your latest purchase with them in whatever way is age appropriate, especially if they show any interest when it shows up on your doorstep. If you’re excited about it, then it’s all the more likely that they’ll get excited to be able to join you in some way. The key is not being afraid to just wing it and make up simple rules as you go. After all, the whole point is spending time engaging with your kid, and what better way to do that than over a board game!
After part-way raising a couple of boys (we’re in process), there has been many a monster chucked across the room at our house. I’m surprised that chucking across the room isn’t included in the rules!
It’s a great list, Talia. I also made my own list a while back and gave recommendations. My 5 year old has great spatial skills but is not dexterous. So games with hand-eye coordination is tough for her. Yet, she can finish a 4-piece Ubongo Extreme relatively quick.
More than welcome to click on my name and visit my site. I did jot down kid notes on my reviews.
Here are additional games we highly recommend. Just a subset. It is slightly different from yours, but some overlap:
Sleeping Queen (It’s true, this is a great and simple game for kids. She loved it at 4-5, but has since faded)
Rat-a-Tat-Cat (Meh game, but did learn how to bluff, albeit not well. I am not a huge fan of this)
Zoowaboo (Another spatial game, pseudo co-op. She likes it enough. Can start at 4-5)
Memoaarrr! (This one goes well at 4-5. She is a whiz at memory and I think most kids are)
Wild Vikings (Setting her up to learn auction mechanism. Started at 4 but not good until 5)
Katzenbande (Too old for your kid now, but at 3-4 the game is Knizia’s gem for kids. Setting them up as future gamers)
Blokus Duo (Early stages at 5 to grasp strategy, waiting for light bulb moment)
Ubongo series (The 3 piece Ubongo is a great start. No timer. No gems. Just an activity. 4-5)
LLAMA (This is an awesome Knizia at 5. She is having a blast and now learned subtle strategies)
Mamma Mia (At 5 she can also slow grasp the sequence of events to win)
Yummy Palace (Walker-Harding does drafting for kids. At 4-5, she can do it, but no optimal)
Gold Im Orrinoco (We love this one. She played at 4, now at 5 she is decent at it)
Ticket to Ride (At 5 we started with just basic train connections. She can do destination cards but any strategy is still beyond her)
Menara (I recommend this over villa Paletti because of co-op. It is better for kids and as a family)
I am pulling out Geister Geister at your recommendation. I think you are right about it being ready for co-op. She also loves Fluch der Mumie (Pengqueen) though still a challenge for her. Thanks for a wonderful list.