While assembling our list of 40 essential family games, we spent a lot of time commiserating about the dreary hours we’ve spent as parents, sitting glassy-eyed opposite our children, trying to feign enthusiasm about some game they’ve dragged off the shelf—even though we tried really hard to put it out of reach. Below are the 10 games we can’t even pretend to like any more. These include some of the best-selling games of all time, and if you still enjoy them, we mean no offense. But there are better alternatives! If we can save even one family from another dull trip up Gumdrop Mountain, we’ll sleep easier tonight.
Candy Land. Candy Land becomes many a child’s first game, perhaps because it’s one of the few that their parents and grandparents recognize. It’s hard to imagine a worse introduction to an activity that should be fun. The only good lesson this purely luck-based, sickly sweet time waster teaches is that life is capricious. Suck it, Lord Licorice.
Instead play: Richard Scarry’s Busytown: Eye Found It, which is just as colorful, but lets kids actually do something.
Clue. It’s more of a grade school logic puzzle than a board game, but Clue’s even bigger flaw is that it too easily goes awry—due to lucky guesses, or players not following directions properly, or circumstances that allow some detectives to hover around the same few rooms, while others have to keep traveling. Kill this game, with the dagger, in the billiard room.
Instead play: Betrayal at House on the Hill, which has funky chambers and gruesome murder, plus supernatural monsters and teamwork.
The perfect game for a kid with a murder obsession: Read Rebecca Lavoie’s defense of Clue.
Cranium. The intent behind Cranium, created in 1998 by a pair of Microsoft staffers, was noble: to make a party game combining elements of other popular party games so that anyone who insists they’re bad at Trivial Pursuit or Pictionary won’t feel left out. But actually slogging through this hodgepodge is an exercise in dread, as teams wait warily for the categories they’re anxious to avoid. Plus, your Cranium Clay has definitely dried out by now.
Instead play: Pictionary. C’mon, it’s not that hard. Besides, it’s probably what most of the people gathered around the Cranium board wanted to play in the first place.
Hangman. There’s a reason why Wheel of Fortune started spotting contestants the letters R, S, T, L, N, and E in its bonus round. The typical Hangman game is a dull grind through the same guesses to get to an answer that’s either way too easy or next to impossible—interrupted only by arguments about whether your hanged guy should have only arms and legs, or arms, legs, hands, feet, and eyebrows.
Instead play: Boggle, which lets you show off all the cool words you know but is more of an actual competition.
“Sometimes you just need a medium-fun game”: Read Madeline Kaplan’s defense of Hangman.
Life. No matter how many times the Milton Bradley Company tries to modernize this archaic, moralistic board game (which dates back to 1860, when it was created by the actual Milton Bradley!), the Game of Life still consists of a series of unappealing choices, with predictable outcomes (like life itself, I guess). Most laughably, the game pays out money for each child you have, the exact opposite of the actual effect of having children.
Instead play: Village. It’s too advanced for younger kids, but it’s ultimately a more thought-provoking, multidimensional trip through the ups and downs of daily living.
Mouse Trap. The only reason to play Mouse Trap is to trigger the cool Rube Goldberg contraption that players build throughout the game. But getting the cheap plastic pieces to fit together right is tricky, and the experience is more often frustrating than fun. The game should really be treated more like a model kit that kids can tinker with on their own time—or better yet, buy an actual model kit that doesn’t break.
Instead play: Blockhead, a building game that’s all construction, no time-wasting dice rolls.
Monopoly. The most famous branded board game of all time can be made enjoyable—with the help of some aggressive house rules, or via one of dozens of variant editions. For the most part though, basic Monopoly is the model for bad game mechanics: Happenstance quickly separates contenders from also-rans, leaving one player gleefully collecting rents while the others wait sullenly to be finished off.
It’s all about the trade: Read Susan Matthews’ defense of Monopoly.
Operation. Nerve-jangling, noisy, and not even all that satisfying to win, Operation is more of an instrument of torture than a fun way to spend an afternoon.
Instead play: Air Hockey, which also demands dexterity (and makes quite a racket) but is much more exhilarating.
Risk. Like Monopoly, Risk almost seems like it was designed to rip families apart, given that one or more players are typically crushed with the first 15 minutes, leaving the surviving armies to make incremental progress against each other for three hours or so. If you must buy Risk, get the “Legacy” edition, first released in 2011, which led a clever trend in gaming in which what happens in one game permanently changes the board for the next one.
Instead play: Axis & Allies, which turns “playing war” into a nuanced and educational pastime, not just an exercise in brute force against brute force.
Tic-tac-toe. Tic-tac-toe is valuable only as a test of what kind of parent you want to be. Are you a parent who intentionally plays poorly in order to let your kids win? Or do you think children need to learn on their own, through grueling trial and error, that some games are fundamentally unwinnable?
Instead play: Dots and Boxes. You’ll still be claiming squares on a piece of paper, but you’ll have to think about your moves for more than half a second.
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