Gaming With Family

With the winter holidays come holiday cheer and for many of us, gatherings with family and (non-gaming) friends. Alas!

We are optimistic folks of course. We studiously examine our shelves, seeking that small cardboard box of magic pixie dust–the game you can play with non-gamers. You are seeking the perfect family game.

What makes a good family game?

A good family game should have enough going on that you as a gamer don’t mind playing it but its complexity is not out of the reach of your non-gaming social circle. With this in mind, four criteria are critical:

(A) The rules needed to play can be taught in three sentences or fewer.

(B) The components teach (or at least reinforce) the rules.

(C) The victory condition can be stated in one sentence.

(D) The game must contain an engaging dexterity or social component.

Here are my three top picks and how each measures up against these four criteria.

Tier Auf Tier


Debra and I were introduced to HABA games around 2005. We were at a small gaming convention in Atlanta and we tried one of them out. Now a shelf is dedicated to these yellow boxes of joy. King among them is Tier Auf Tier–Animal Upon Animal.

(A) The essential rules are perfect: Roll the die, place pieces so they don’t fall, pieces must be in the same plane.

But what about the faces of the die, you may ask. They can be taught as they come up. There is no need to cover them in advance.

(B) The components do not teach the rules as such. However, like all HABA products, they are attractive and exude a spirit of whimsy and fun.

(C) The victory condition is utterly simple–be the first one to run out of pieces.

(D) The dexterity element of this game far exceeds its closest American counterpart Jenga: They provide an immediate set of tactile feedback when placing each piece. Watching your grandmother smirk as she leaves you to place your round sheep atop a precarious ladder of wood will be all the proof you need.



High school gaming consisted almost consistently of Hearts, Spades and RPGs. It was in college that I began to branch out. One of the first we tried was Scattergories. It has since served as one of our lead social games. The conversations which spring up around this game are frequently the best part of the experience. Six strangers can sit down for a play and end the session with a connection. And is that not one of the main reasons we come to the game table in the first place?

(A) The essential rules are straightforward: draw a category card, roll the letter die, write a word or term for each category in the blanks provided. Compare with everyone else and score your unique answers.

(B) The components are a large fraction of the rules–the die sets the letter, the category card sets the categories, the sand timer declares when you stop. Your answer sheet is also your score sheet.

(C) Score one point for every answer you have which no one else used, high score wins.

(D) The phase in which players compare answers is a perfect opportunity to gain insight into your friends. In one case we were absolutely clobbered by a Brit. His everyday vocabulary differed from that of us Yanks and that gave him a major edge!

6 Nimmt!


It was in 2002 that Ray introduced us to 6 Nimmt! Its mathematical core combined with its reliance on player-reading skills made it a standby for light gaming. 6 Nimmt! has now been released under many names and newer themes but my heart still has a warm spot for the bull headed edition.

(A) Clear and concise rules. Pick a card from your hand. Reveal simultaneously. Place cards from lowest to highest onto the board. Claim a pile if you place the sixth card but leave your card behind.

The results of these rules can become a bit involved in application but on their surface, they are simple. Again this is ideal for our purposes.

(B) The components of 6 Nimmt! are simply a deck of cards. The numbers however are extremely easy to read and the cow heads stick out prominently on each.

(C) Score one point for each cow head you collect, low score wins.

(D) Most of my favorite games involve an element of playing the other players. This is the core of 6 Nimmt! You have two cards left–one low and one high. Can you depend on your opponent to play that medium card and take the stack? Or will she go low? Or does she have you bamboozled? Good stuff all around!

What about you? What is your favorite game to play with non-gamers? Share it in the comments below!


11 thoughts on “Gaming With Family

  1. Corey Young says:

    Great summary Kevin, and great choices. We often play Scattergories together. Our kids’ ages are 8, 11, 14 and 18, but it works just fine for the whole gang.

    I’d add Dixit to the list. It meets your criteria.

  2. sirvalence says:

    Some of my go-to games with non-gamers (though I’m not sure how well they meet your criteria) include No Thanks, Guillotine, Incan Gold, Saboteur, Forbidden Island, and (this time of year) Scotto Starkey’s Twelve Days of Christmas.

    Lately, though, I’ve had good success with getting my family to play Sentinels of the Multiverse, including my brothers and my 10-to-13-year-old grand-nephews. 🙂

  3. Brent says:

    I don’t necessarily agree with A) Rules taught in 3 sentences or less, I think it depends on your table. I think that the rules need to be at a level the table can cope with and different tables will have different levels of capabilities.

    I played a few games this X-mas season with Step-Family folks and they did fine with games like Hanabi and Ticket to Ride: Asia (Team Variant) …even with folks who have never played the Ticket to Ride base game. TtR: Asia was not even my idea, one of my wife’s aunts has the base game and loves it. She wanted to play this variant with me so I could teach her the rules. Some of her family saw us setting it up and asked to play as well…what could I do but say “Yes”. 🙂

    I think sometimes us hobby gamers do non gamer adults a bit of an injustice by picking only simple games. Just because they don’t usually play games doesn’t mean we have to put dumbed down games on the table. Perhaps this is WHY they don’t play many games, because folks like us keep putting simple games in front of them. I do challenge non gamers to play more involved games, with good success. Once again, it all depends on the folks involved.


    My Go To games change all the time, but Ticket to Ride, Hanabi, Blokus, Speculation, La Boca, Great Dalmuti, Octopus Garden, all hit the table regularly with non gamers.

  4. Randy Snyder says:

    Sorry to come late to the party, but our go-to game is Electronic Catchphrase. Its available for $20 at any big box store, and can be taught in no time.
    1) Get your team to say the phrase on the screen. Pass it to the next team. Don’t be the one holding it when the timer goes off
    2) All you have is this screen, and a button. The timer runs itself.
    3) First team to 7 points wins.
    4) The game is highly social as you try to guess your phrases, and discuss what the other team was trying to guess.

  5. James Torr says:

    Great post, interesting challenge – one I always face round the holidays. I love 6 Nimmt, but I notice that your rules summary for it is 4 sentences! 🙂 It’s OK, I kinda cheated with a semicolon for Timeline, below:

    Toc Toc Woodman:
    On your turn, you get two swings with the axe. Any brown/barks pieces that you knock off are worth 1 point, and any tan/core pieces are worth -5 points. The game is over when all the bark has been knocked off.

    Loopin Louie:
    Louie wants to get your chickens. Hit the lever-thingy such that Louie doesn’t get your chickens. Last person with chickens wins.

    Bugs in the Kitchen:
    You get a point each time you the bug to go in to your trap/hole. On your turn, roll the die and then rotate a fork, spoon, or knife (as shown by the die) of your choice 90 degrees. If you roll a question mark, rotate any piece 90 degrees.

    You want to win the race. On your turn, flick your race car. If it flips or goes off the track and/or pushes other discs off the track, put them back where they were.

    Ghost Blitz:
    If the card depicts one of the items on the table (white ghost, blue book, green bottle, red chair, gray mouse), grab that item and take the card. If none of the items is depicted correctly (i.e., color is wrong), then grab the item whose shape or color is not depicted on the card, and take card. After you’ve one through the deck, most cards wins.

    You have a hand of cards that depict an event and the year in which it occurred. On your turn, place a card between two other cards on the table, such that your card/year is in between the other two cards/years; if you’re wrong, draw a card. First player to get rid of all their cards wins.

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