We tabletop games writers spend a good amount of time convincing people that board games aren’t just for kids any more, and that the wide, spectacular vistas of boxed tabletop treasures available today are an unmissable treat for adults. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t a host of brilliant board games for kids coming out these days – and we’re not talking about glorified plastic doodads, balance toys with delusions of grandeur, or spring-loaded mess-making machines here, either.
No, this is your guide to the best bona fide board games for youngsters to play, that still require only a minimum of parental supervision to get them into the swing of things. All of our picks have some proper board game turn-taking and engaging qualities to them, all have a cracking visual theme to excite the eye, and all are guaranteed to generate a generous glug of silly fun. We think most will offer a nice bit of challenge for the mini-gamers on either side of the table, into the bargain.
We’ll run through the best titles for each age group, from age four to their teens – the games’ biggest features, and any key tips and tricks to help get the best out of each box of joy we recommend. There’s always many fantastic titles that can’t make it to the list, but we’ll do our best to include the absolute essential games for kids at each age level to enjoy.
Before we get started, here’s the full list of titles to get acquainted with:
THE BEST KIDS’ BOARD GAMES
- Race to the Treasure!
- Snail’s Pace Race
- Ticket to Ride: First Journey
- Cobra Paw
- No Stress Chess
- Catan: Family Edition
BEST BOARD GAMES FOR 4 YEAR OLDS
Race to the Treasure!
Race to the Treasure! is a surprising and curious achievement, in that it’s a proper strategy game that your four-year-old can get their head round (and teeth into). It’s a cooperative quest to chart your way across a grid, collecting keys on your way to claim the treasure chest. On each turn, you’ll draw a card, which might be a Path card, adding to your road to the booty – or an Ogre card, each of which takes the game’s boisterous, bearded baddies closer to beating you to the punch.
Kids feel like they have agency, without losing the thrill of random card flips
It’s a smart mix of random card-drawing and teamwork that’ll give your young comrades a feeling of agency, even though the action is primarily driven by the ever-thrilling chance of flipping random cards. It feels great to lay down your path, closing in on the glittering prizes – but the terrifying inevitability of flipping an Ogre places just enough pressure on things to make it endlessly exciting for the little blighters.
The grid positions of the keys and treasure chest are randomised each time by a quick few dice rolls, meaning your little team will have to plot a different path to victory each time you play. Physically, there’s not much to it – but trust us, you’ll end up playing this a lot.
Snail’s Pace Race
If Race to the Treasure! embodies the strategic and cooperative virtues of modern board games, then Snail’s Pace Race does the same for colour, simplicity and charm.
There’s not an ounce of strategy here, just a simple, high-stakes drag race, starring everyone’s favourite garden-dwelling molluscs, crafted in good, old-fashioned, brightly-coloured wood.
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Take turns rolling the colour-spot dice to find out which shelled speedster dashes forward, and follow along with the random speed bursts and overtakes, until one snail wins. That’s it. Nothing complex, nothing fancy – just quickfire dice-rolling and charming, competitive, colourful snails.
It’s dead simple, and wicked fast – you can zip through a five-to-ten-minute game before bedtime, easy – and, while three-year-olds can easily grasp what’s going on, four-year-olds will likely be better able to get their rolling and racing up to the breakneck (snail’s) pace where the game comes into its own.
BEST BOARD GAMES FOR 5 YEAR OLDS
Ticket to Ride: First Journey
Ticket to Ride is a solid gold classic of the modern age of board games, combining super-simple basic mechanics with satisfying, slow-burn scheming, devious competitive tricksiness and the veritable festival of serotonin that comes with placing conga lines of adorable little coloured trains across a map.
Simplifying Ticket to Ride for 5 year olds is a public service
No surprise, then, that this cleverly-condensed version for kids is such a hit. Doubling down on the original’s ultra-accessible systems, Ticket to Ride: First Journey is effectively the same thing, but in miniature – and with anything remotely fiddly simply lopped off. Routes between cities are only one to three train carriages long, cut down from up to twice that. In place of the original’s careful end-of-game tallying of points from different routes and special bonuses, here, the first player to complete six tickets is simply declared the winner. What’s more, it’s an actual rule that you have to slap the table and shout “TICKET!” when you complete one.
It’s an absolute barrel of laughs, and deserves a spot on our list simply for the certifiable public service of translating a treasure like Ticket to Ride into something five-year-old-friendly. Rapturous applause.
A game of quick thinking and quicker reactions, the unassuming Cobra Paw poses you with a deceptively simple challenge: roll two dice with coloured symbols on the faces, then find the domino-like tile on the table bearing the same two-symbol combo, and snatch it up before your opponent can. Easy. No problemo. Perfect for a five-year-old.
Except that, whether you’re five or thirty-five, this goes from zero to confoundingly, compellingly challenging in two shakes of a ninja kitten’s tail. Mentally locking in the combination of symbols you’re looking for, then swiftly grabbing it from the sea of colour before you, is harder than you think.
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Kids and parents alike will luxuriate in their sleight-handed wins, and yet just as often find their joy evaporate, when they double-check and find one of their tile’s symbols is, in fact, close – but not the one. Oh, the agony. Sure, this game’s dead easy to grasp, and superb for teaching young kids quick recognitions and reactions – but it’ll give any unsuspecting grown-ups that wade in a sobering run for their money, too. Be warned.
Additionally, of course, the game’s eye-pleasing, smoothly rounded black tiles are very friendly to little hands – and the elegant Chinese-character-esque symbols are oh, so easy on the eye. It all makes for a striking overall presentation that easily wins it a spot in our good books.
BEST BOARD GAMES FOR 8 YEAR OLDS
No Stress Chess
Chess is the original board game, and the original wargame both. A cultural touchstone and intellectual whetstone the world over, this simple, yet infinitely complex strategy game is so ubiquitous that it’s more or less as essential a skill for kids as, say, swimming, or riding a bike. Every kid should learn to play Chess, it’s as simple as that.
No Stress Chess removes the horrible memorising from your kids’ first games
It’s a real shame, though, that it can be such an excruciating pain to teach to children. Before you can even really approach a game of Chess, you have to learn the abstract dimensions of movement of which each different piece is capable. Diagonals, horizontals, distances, all the different pieces themselves – it’s an awful lot of memorising for a kiddo, and all before they’ve had even the slightest whiff of any actual fun from the game. It’s a brick wall that too many simply bounce off, thinking Chess is a snore-fest. It’s tragic.
Enter our favourite technically-educational board game ever, No Stress Chess. Coming paired with an ingenious set of cards that act as both demonstrations and player aids for the abilities and uses of each piece, this absolute gift of a game removes all the horrible, inhospitable memorising from your kids’ first Chess games, so they can ride smoothly into the fun part. You’ll soon be playing proper games, and seeing your eight-year-old stretching all those new, nearly-double-digits-age brainbox muscles, to play strategies you hadn’t thought of yourself. Excelsior!
Labyrinth is a board game with a single, simple concept at its heart: You’re in a maze, trying to collect the treasures within and escape – but, wouldn’t you know it, the darned maze itself is moving and shifting every turn, scuppering your mission, and threatening to trap you within its winding corridors for all eternity.
Here’s where it gets interesting, though: the labyrinth board is made up of a grid of tiles, arranged in rows, with a single tile always outside the grid. On each of your turns, you get to slide that spare tile onto the end of one row, pushing out the corresponding tile on the other end, thus shifting the internal walls of the maze in the process. You might only make a slight change, or you might close off two entire passages, and open another, all in one go. Not so easy to collect your treasures, now that your opponent is the one moving the walls around!
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The total gobsmacking genius of Labyrinth as a kids’ board game is the range of different strategic levels catered to by that one central mechanic. For your eight-year-olds, it’s a fairly random element that forces them to try and think ahead to create different options for how to reach their prize. But, as they grow older, they’ll begin to get more cut-throat; planning ways to close off their opponent’s avenues while creating their own, or allowing them to progress in one direction, only to make it easier to block their escape route later.
Surprisingly deep, flexible and as competitive as you want it to become, Labyrinth will captivate them at eight, and continue delivering hard-fought tactical contests well into their teens. And twenties. And thirties…
BEST BOARD GAMES FOR 10 YEAR OLDS
Catan: Family Edition
Catan (as in, The Settlers of) is the Godfather of European “designer” board games. It’s won more awards than we’ve had hot dinners; it’s compact, competitive, well-balanced, a mind-calming visual treat, and delivers a different strategic, resource-trading, empire-building tour de force every single time. All this, while still being easy to teach, and easy to learn to play – even for (relative) nippers. Ten-year-olds could get stuck into the full fat version of Catan perfectly well, but it’s not designed for kids, per se, and they might have trouble identifying and remembering some of the in-game elements – like which hexes produce which resources, for example.
The family edition tweaks every aspect of presentation to help young players
Hence this absolute knockout of a kid-optimised version, which makes (as far as we can tell) absolutely no real gameplay changes to the simple, already perfect original – but rather tweaks every aspect of the game’s presentation to make it more accessible to young players. The board tiles are smaller. The hexes are more distinctly colour coded to show which resource cards they correspond to. The cards, likewise, are more distinct, in colours and symbols. The road and city pieces are bright plastic, instead of demure wood.
In short, it’s the absolute best way to play one of history’s finest board games with your ten-year-old (or frankly even eight-to-nines, if they’re keen). We can’t say fairer than that.
Another multiple-award-winner (nominated in 2017 for the prestigious Spiel des Jahres, given only to the most sublime simple-yet-complex designer board games in all the world) Kingdomino is a game of two halves. On each turn, you’ll first choose a double-ended domino tile from the shared pool – and then place it, with care and forethought, in your personal Kingdom, aiming to build up a five-by-five grid containing as many connecting matched tiles, and special point-scoring symbols, as possible. Simples.
So simple, in fact, that its official age rating is 8+. But don’t be fooled – we recommend it for ten-year-olds for a reason. If it were as simple as picking the juiciest tiles each time and slapping them down, then victory would almost always go to the first picker – but there’s a wrinkle or two. Whoever chose the highest overall value tile in each round, picks last in the next – so your kids will learn fast that being a greedy guts doesn’t necessarily pay off.
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Besides, more often you’re trying to match one or two symbols, while your opponent(s) are after different ones – so tiles will be ‘worth’ more or less to different players. Maybe you pick the tile you most need straight off, to stop someone else snaffling it – or maybe you play the long game, making some ‘meh’ choices, just to tease out what the others are pursuing, so you can swoop in later to scupper their plans.
What starts off as a slightly pepped up version of classic dominoes, quickly shows itself to be a fiendish, poker-like, competitive drafting game with the potential for some serious social shenanigans. Younger kids can certainly play, but the game comes alive for ten-and-ups, because they can start to really scheme, thinking ahead to undermine opponents. An essential tool for training miniature machiavellian monsters, Kingdomino is a must.
BEST BOARD GAMES FOR TEENAGERS
Talisman is a strange beast: a well-shaken cocktail of elements that combine to make a vast, sprawling, delightful high fantasy adventure game that’s sometimes infuriating, often roundabout, but always a whole bunch of fun. It’s got a board like Chutes and Ladders on methamphetamine, a style, setting and cast of characters straight out of the original 1970s Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and enough campy, old-fashioned fantasy names to make your head spin. It’s utterly fantastic.
Random events along your journey could make your character stronger - or cripple you
Players select a character from a choice of 14 (!) different fantasy archetypes, each with its own special abilities, baked-in boons and drawbacks, and stats for life, strength and magic. Then you’ll set off on your way around three concentric tracks of spaces, triggering events along the way, that could make you stronger, make you richer, or give you new companions to aid you in battle – or they could cripple you, curse you or murder your existing followers. It’s brutal stuff. Should you avoid premature defeat, your quest is to make it from the outside of the board to the centre by progressing from the Outer World, to the Middle World, and finally the Inner World, and its famed Portal of Power, where you can (if you possess the might) claim the Crown of Command, with which to cast the mythical, game-winning Command spell.
Games can last a good couple of hours, but Talisman is glorious fun, generates oodles of ridiculous stories, and is an excellent way to desensitise the young’uns to fantasy tropes and RPG-like mechanics, ready to be inducted into full-on Dungeons and Dragons.
Nothing inherently to do with Coronavirus (although it probably won’t be long until a Covid-19-themed special edition comes out), this precision-engineered, thrilling and strategic cooperative game sees a team of two to four players become expert disease-fighting operatives, coordinating the global response to several simultaneous, deadly pandemics ravaging humanity.
It’s pacy, unforgiving and surprisingly difficult to win – but its core mechanics are so damn simple that teenagers will get the hang of things pretty quick. More to the point, it’s among the most impressive cooperative experiences out there, and has a near-magical ice-breaking ability to pull a team together.
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In the face of an encroaching tide of deadly infections, with enough resources for only a few vital actions each turn, even the most reticent teens or tweens will eventually step up to the plate, offering ideas for what their character can do to help.
By the end, when everyone knows the last deadly, game-ending outbreak is on the cards, and you’re feverishly counting out the remaining actions to see how the human race can possibly still be saved, all awkwardness has been jettisoned. More often than not, you’ll find usually-sullen souls suggesting another game. You know, just to see if they can win it. Not because it’s awesome or anything.