Back in the first decade of this century (c. 2009), I published a list of my top 100 kid games… and while I’d quibble with some of my choices now, I think the extensive writing I did on the state of games for children at that time was spot on. If you’d like to read it, you can follow this link down the rabbit hole.
I got curious, though, thinking about a generation of kids (since my boys are now 20 & 16 and much more interested in Unmatched, Exceed, Star Wars: Rebellion, and Heroclix) who might be missing out on some of these classics. So, what follows is highlights from my reviews of those top five kid games… along with some notes on where you might be able to scare up a copy!
Let’s be clear: I still love this game.
Why do I like Kayanak so much? In the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “let me count the ways”:
1. the theme (ice-fishing) and the mechanics (using a wooden stick to poke holes in the [paper] ice and fishing out small metal balls with a magnet) work together perfectly
2. the components are, as is typical for Haba games, top-notch. In this case, they not only look good but are extremely functional.
3. The game plays well with 2, 3 or 4 players… and with children as young as four & adults as old as dirt.
3. It’s freakishly fun – I mean, seriously – you get to poke holes in paper (what kid hasn’t spent most of slow school morning doing that?!), play with magnets, and pretend to be an Inuit out on a frozen lake. (OK, I have no desire to ACTUALLY be on a frozen lake, but the pretending part is fun.)
The gameplay is dice-activated: what you roll tell you what you can do (cut holes, fish, move or a combination of things) as well as how many times you can do them. The dice also give you opportunities to ice over other players fishing holes and “melt” portions of the board (making them impassable).
There’s a lot of ways to play tactically – and yet, part of the charm of the game is that the fish (little metal balls in two sizes: regular & “fish story”) sometimes clump together so that make an amazing haul… and sometimes you fish in an area that is, sadly, fishless. (Is “fishless” a word? I’m not sure that I care.)
Sadly, even though it came back in print in 2013, it’s out of print again. It looks like there are Geek Market copies available if you live in Europe – but those of us in the U.S. are going to have to avail ourselves of other methods to find a copy.
#2: Hallo Dachs
Another game that I’m happy to play RIGHT NOW if someone showed up and wanted to put it on the table.
First, he took most of the known gaming world by storm with his Settlers of Catan, then Klaus Teuber darn near drowned us in expansions & variations (I literally own 25 different Catan-related games & expansions myself). But in the middle of all of that, he took some time to design some really nifty kid games – and Hallo Dachs is my favorite. (For a few years, it would have topped this list.)”Hallo, Dachs” translates to “Hello, Badger” – and so 2-4 badgers/players begin digging around the board, trying to find the most satisfying meal of flowers & bugs. Successfully root up the right number of badger snacks & you get the token – which is worth points. The first player to reach the winning threshold (15 points for 4 players, 20 points for 3 players, 25 points for 2 players) wins. (Which seems obvious when I call it “the winning threshold”, doesn’t it?)
Digging up the badger version of comfort food (“yumm – beetle bugs & strawberries!”) is where your memory must kick into gear. There are six types of food (3 flowers & 3 bugs) that are keyed to the roll of a die. Each badger token has a number on the top that indicates how many times you have to roll the die. For each roll, you must turn over one correct bit of food from the tableau of face-down food tiles that surround the board.
Already some of you are figuring out that this could be very difficult – say, if you rolled the same number 3 times & therefore needed three DIFFERENT purple berries. And you’d be right – that’s part of the fun. Of course, there are also garbage dumps in the face down tiles that cost you points & end your attempt to fulfill the tile.
An aside: the English translation evidently is wrong for dealing w/garbage dumps. You don’t lose a point, you lose a TILE (which could be worse, as most tiles are worth 2-4 points). You still can skip a turn to flip a tile back over, so it doesn’t end your game but it certainly slows you down.
A great game mechanic, right? Well, Herr Teuber wasn’t finished. He added a nice board play element to the game. On your turn, before you begin digging for snacks, you may move one space along the trails. This not only allows you to find easier pickings (the badger chips are distributed randomly before the game) but also to go in front of other players to eat up the chips they were looking to take for themselves.
So, you’ve got a nifty memory game that has actual board play tactics with a cute theme. It’s playable with kids as young as 4 (who will need help with the board play element) and enjoyable for all ages. It’s really a shame that it isn’t in print.
Once again, our European friends can likely find a copy through the Geek Market… but it’s a bit tricky to locate one here in the States. Sigh.
#3: Midnight Party
My information in this review is no longer correct – there was actually another English release (Escape From the Hidden Castle) and a new version (with changed rules) in German.
There have been a lot of editions of this game – in English alone it’s had two different names (Midnight Party and Ghost Party). I think my favorite is Spöktimmen… I have no idea what language that is but it looks like Hugo (the ghost in the game) formed a Icelandic heavy metal band.
But that’s not really the point here, is it? We’re talking about the gaming equivalent of the old joke about the two guys hiking in the woods.
See, there’s these two guys who are hiking in the woods when they come upon a big grizzly bear. The bear lunges toward them & they begin running, leaping over fallen trees and dodging saplings as they go. They can hear the bear behind them, crashing through the underbrush… but they’re running fast enough to put a bit of distance between them & the bear. Suddenly, one of the guys stops and pulls a pair of running shoes out of his bag & begins to lace them on – even as they can hear the bear moving closer.
The other guys asks him: “What are you doing? You can’t outrun the bear!”
To which, the running shoe guy replies: “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.
Thank you, thank you…. I’ll be here all week. Don’t forget to tip your waitress.
Since my career in stand-up comedy is DOA, let’s get back to talking about the game, shall we? I told you the joke because that’s really the heart of Midnight Party, except in this case it’s a ghost chasing you because he wanted to play hide-n-seek at his birthday party and when you get caught, you just lose points, not various parts of your anatomy.
Depending on the number of players (and this game really does work with 2-8 players, though I like it best with 5 or more), each person controls 2 or more party goers who are placed around the central hallway of Hugo’s mansion. In turn, each player rolls the die and either moves one of their figures (4 of the sides have numbers on them) or moves Hugo (2 of the sides have Hugo’s mug shot plastered across it). Hugo is a nimble little fellow so he gets to move 3 spaces each time his picture pops up.
When Hugo reaches the top of the stairs (he starts in the center of the board in the basement), then players have permission to begin hiding in the rooms around the hallway. There’s a few twists to this, of course:
1. Not all of the rooms are open – for example, you can’t hide in the bathroom where someone is taking a bath. (The artwork on the board is very cute & full of detail.)
Only one figure can hide in each room.
2. There are two rooms that have Hugo’s ghost buddies in them that cost the player 1 point to use – but that often beats the alternative.
3. There are two other rooms that are worth +3 points to hide in… but you have to reach those rooms by exact count.
If Hugo manages to pass or catch a figure, they’re sent to the basement until the game is over… the first figure(s) take a -10 penalty, the 2nd -9, and so on. (The whole “ghost buddy” rooms thing makes more sense now, eh?!) As more than one figure can be on a hallway space at one time, those who are caught together suffer the same penalty.
But it’s not time to refresh your beverage when your figures are done moving (by being caught or hiding). You still roll the dice to see if Hugo moves! This, btw, is one of the highlights of the game, as those players who are finished are rooting for Hugo to kick it into overdrive & chase down the remaining players before they can dart to safety.
So, when everyone is either caught or safely hidden in a room, the round ends & you score up. The game is made to play multiple rounds – we usually play three. So, each person who hid in a room is moved outside their room to start the next round and then the figures who were caught choose their starting places in the order they were caught.
As I describe the game, it doesn’t sound like much. But there is a whole lot of fun packed into this simple game – I’ve NEVER seen it fall flat. It works with groups of kids (as young as age 5), with gamers as a late night closer, with families… the combination of easy rules & fun gameplay that can accommodate 8 players comfortably make it a real winner in my book.
It’s slightly easier to find copies of Midnight Party – the newest German version (Hugo: Das Schlossgespenst) is available through Amazon.de and there are copies available for purchase or trade through the Geek Market.
#4: Maskenball der Käfer (The Ladybug’s Costume Party)
In the words of The Hudsucker Proxy: “You know, for kids.”
See, the ladybugs are having a costume party – so they’ve decided to trade colored spots. (Yes, kids, this happens in the real world all the time, as bugs often exchange their coloring with each other & hold tiny bug raves where they play remixes of Adam Ant and the Scorpions and dance the night way using glow sticks provided by their friendly neighborhood lightening bugs.)
Now, you’d think that my sarcasm about the theme would keep me from enjoying this cooperative memory game – but it doesn’t. Maybe it’s because I think that the wooden ladybugs with the magnetic noses are so darn cute… or because the idea of yellow wooden ants advancing up the vine to chow down on the picnic food is appealing to me in some way… or probably because after 63 games of this with my kids, this is such a playable & enjoyable game that I’m ready to play it again.
It’s simple – on your turn you spin the flower spinner which either points to:
– a petal, which indicates which ladybug will be moving this turn, OR
– a leaf, which indicates that one of the ants is placed on the time track, meaning the ladybug party is getting closer to be crashed by a bunch of loud-mouthed refugees from “A Bug’s Life”
If you do get to move a ladybug, you choose a different ladybug to attempt to befriend… then have them touch noses. Due to a very clever bit of component design (the noses are magnetic & the wooden bases of the ladybugs are curved so they spin easily), the bugs either “kiss” or the bug you’re attempting to befriend spins away, kind of like my wife after I’ve eaten Twizzlers. (She says she doesn’t want to kiss me because my breath smells like “you’ve been chewing on the dashboard in the van.”)
If they kiss, they exchange spots (small wooden pegs) and the ladybug gets to fly to another petal & attempt to make friends. If the moving ladybug is rejected, the turn is over. (Some of you are having bad high school prom flashbacks – come on, people! This is the insect kingdom, not a rerun of your junior year!)
When a ladybug has five different colored spots (pegs), they go hang out on the big leaf at the bottom of the board – see, they’ve got their costume on and are ready to party like it’s 1999. The objective, of course, is to get all 8 ladybugs party-ready before 7 ants crash the place.
While I haven’t tracked it exactly, our win/loss ratio is about 1 out of every 3-4 games… far enough apart to keep the tension in each game while close enough (esp. since it’s short – 15 minutes or so) to keep the younger set from getting frustrated.
My boys both started playing this around the time they were 3 years old. While they needed an adult to help move the pegs around & set up the game, they understood what they were trying to do & enjoyed the game immensely.
Two warnings… well, maybe “warning” is too strong. Two things you need to know about:
1. The game parts are too small for kids in the appropriate age range to play with by themselves. Selecta is kind enough to provide extra pegs in the box, but this really is a game for kids & parents together.
2. It’s time for my spinner rant – IF you’re going to use a spinner, then make sure that the lines marking each area are clear. There are a couple of places on the spinner that are neither petal nor leaf – we just re-spin on those spaces but it’s irritating.
Don’t let either of those things keep you from playing this – it’s #4 on this list for a reason.
Another sadly OOP game… and yet again our EU friends have the best line on scarfing up a copy from the Geek Market.
#5: Giro Gallopo
This one works great with adults who need to work out frustrations from their long Euro-y games in which another player cut them off from completing their master plan.
Well, it certainly looks like a cute kid game, doesn’t it? Pretty kid art, little wooden jockeys with interchangeable wooden horses, nifty little wooden fences… but don’t be fooled. This game is “mummy, daddy, don’t touch it’s Ee-vil” in a box. (A very cute box, mind you.)OK, maybe it’s not pure “Time Bandit-y” evil…. but this is not Candyland, people. This is a no-holds-barred steeplechase where each space can only hold one horse & landing on another player sends them back to the first empty spot.
Movement isn’t determined by a die – each player has a hand of 6 cards (numbered 1-6, naturally!) which are chosen & played simultaneously. The lowest number goes first, with ties broken by which horse is farthest behind. In practice, this means that the whole Robert Burns “plans of mice & men gang aft agley” thing is in full swing here at the races. All it takes is for some plodding rider to move you one space back & your once-brilliant move now plows you straight into the river.
Speaking of the river (and the bog & the fences), if a horse ends his move on one of those spaces, it’s as if his move never happened. The horse (in dressage parlance) “refused” the jump & you simply stay where you started.
With the delightful bits & simple game play, this game is easily accessible to kindergarten-age kids & up… with the important warning that the potential for hosage in this game really sets off some kids emotionally. (You know what I’m talking about… the kid who can not take something going wrong in his game & melts down like a Milky Way on a dashboard in the Mojave Desert.) I should also note that this warning doesn’t just apply to kids – sadly, most of the adults who have this tendency aren’t able to recognize it in themselves.
The box says this plays with 2-5 players… and while it works with all of those numbers, it’s best with 4-5 so that there’s a lot of jockeying for position.
One final word: this is an excellent game for kids. The bits encourage imaginative play and the simple “gotta figure out what the other guy is gonna do” process is an important decision-making skill. But it’s also an excellent filler for adults, whether they’re gamers or complete newbies. Simple rules + hosage + quick play = fun.
Finally, a gift for my stateside friends – the Geek Market has a single copy available. :-) Again, OOP, but worth tracking down.
Yeah, they’re all OOP now… but the quality of the games is still there. I’d happily play any of these – and may try to talk my 16 year old son into doing just that later today.