A real parent’s guide to games as Christmas gifts

Now don’t roll your eyes! This isn’t one of those oh-so-perfect-Mommy posts about how we “all look forward eagerly to the fun, fun, fun we have on family game night when we eat the YUMMY perfectly decorated cupcakes Mommy and her perfect toddler made after enjoying a gourmet dinner whipped up by the teenage son who LOVES to skip hanging with his friends for family game night….”
Nor is this one of those “raise your kid to go to Harvard at 12 with educational games instead of real school” type posts.
No, not in this house and no, not in this lifetime. This is a sane parent’s review of the extreme tedium of games–especially games advertised on Family Game Night commercials. Oh the fun! Oh the joy! If I didn’t offer this post as a public service those board games would take over your life. The kind of “take over” that would have you SUGGESTING we all watch Frozen for the 400 millionth time.
Games, especially those advertised on happy family commercials, can ruin your children’s expectations. We aren’t talking hard-core, sleep-with-the-parents (Who the heck thought that up??) overly Mommied little people having their expectations squashed. No siree Bub! I’m talking REAL families. Families where Mommy only watches Frozen with a 4th frozen drink in her hand. The kind of family where Daddy helps with homework by saying “Honey? The kids need your help.” You know–REAL families.
Family Game Night commercial games lead kids to expect popping pop corn in the fireplace, baking cookies together and drinking cocoa with a pound of marshmallows in it. And, worst of all, they expect that this will happen….well….nightly. Like husbands think of sex. So you must accept some guidance on how to manage these expectations–just like you manage your husband. Worse still. Such games could lead them to want to make crafts as a family. We know where that leads. I can hear the divorce lawyers rubbing their hands with glee, can’t you?

Families where children don’t realize that a parent can floss a child’s teeth, because who the heck wants to do that? Parents who want to watch Netflix and zone out after a 12 hour work day. Parents who also want to be married, even want to have sex! Parents who still believe the phrase that pays is “Go Play” and enforce it! These are the families I am trying to serve with this post.

Now, I can’t speak for all the Moms of the world (though I have a suspicion I AM speaking for all the Moms of the world), but personally I dreaded those moments when a little voice would say “Mom can we play….” because I knew they’d pick an all-day-sure-to-end-in-tears-no-mother-ever-should-buy-game like, LIFE.The kind of game, that when given at Christmas must instantly be followed up with a cheerful “Wow, won’t that be fun to play at Grandma’s”

Take LIFE. Yes, it teaches marvelous lessons like “use birth control” and “become a investment banker so you can afford a family,” but until the kids are about 12 it’s too complicated to even get started down that road. It doesn’t allow for do-overs and there aren’t really any good ways to cheat to end the game in under a day. Plus they only want it for the cool spinner. Verdict: Skip it. If you find one at a garage sale for a Quarter, then loose the pieces in the trunk on the way home and let them be happy playing with the spinner thingy. (Same with that other old favorite Trouble–it is the pop-o-matic thingy that they want).

Monopoly was only slightly better than LIFE with my kids. My brother and I played it for days on end, but with my kids it was a “no.” From a parent’s perspective there are many ways to cheat, but none that end the game faster–at least no methods that even an 8 year old can’t catch.
Then there are the predictable fights. Everyone wants to be the the race car, so there’s the first fight. No one wants to pay taxes, so that’s the second fight. Someone ALWAYS gets Boardwalk and that makes the person who was “almost there” either throw a fit or cry while emitting the immortal words: “No fair! You got it last time” right before stalking off and scaring the cats by screaming, “I Quit–this game sucks!” So, no Monopoly–not even the cute, girl pink one nor the one of your college or town. Thankfully I got ours from a garage sale for a Quarter. I later found my kid playing a fun game with a little friend that they revealed was called “Drug Deal” with the Monopoly money. Truth. Verdict: skip it. If gifted send it to Grandma’s.
Others to just skip: Anything that ties in to a movie. They’re all either Candy Land or Shoots and Ladders re-packaged. Big drag, and I speak as someone who was stuck playing YEARS of Shrek the board game. All such board games are as awful as the tie-in story books. Skip ’em.
candy land
Parents of Toddlers, take note. Some fool relative who thinks video games are brain death will give the Wee One Candy Land. It’s bound to happen. It is, after all, the gateway drug of board games. Here’s a tip: Let the kid win. Don’t worry about sportsmanship. Cheat and make it happen. Never in your life will Mommy Dearest seem so wise as when playing the trillionth round of Candy Land. Mindless would be a charitable description of this classic game.
Better yet, take your kiddo by the hand, lead them out the back door by way of that drawer where you stash emergency supplies like a couple of condoms for late nights or your occasional “Why -did-I-give-up-a-sane-job-as-a-bond-attorney-to-be-a-Mommy-“cigarettes or your flask for those “I-could-SO-say-would-you-like-fries -with- that-to-be-out-of-here-” moments. Make sure a piece of their favorite candy is always in that drawer. Grab it, go out in the back yard, sit down, run your hand over the grass and say “Now we’re in Candy Land.” Be sure to gesture to the Candy and then to the “land”–i.e. the backyard. Even if it’s two minutes to dinner, give them the candy. With luck in about another minute they’ll freak out over a caterpillar and you can go back inside and put on Frozen for them and get back to your book. Verdict: Inevitable, just minimize exposure.
Same verdict for Chutes And Ladders.  I’m with Lord Grantham on this one. You land on a chute, you’re going down it. This game, though, can be useful for a forced nap. Cheat and move the spinner while they are struggling to find the pink space and tell them a color that lands them on a chute. When they throw a fit it’s naptime.  Foolproof. This works until approximately high school age. They never expect Mommy to cheat you see. Verdict: If gifted ok. Don’t pay for it.

It took years of experimenting but we finally settled on a few we could OCCASIONALLY play together without needing a family intervention therapist. Here’s the reason: kids hate to lose, kids cheat, kids hate to follow rules OR kids LOVE to follow rules and that’s even worse. Trust me. I have one of each. One great game we discovered we all really could enjoy was CADOO. This had enough silliness and action to keep even the one-who-shall-not-be-named happy, while not upsetting the rule-abider overly much. What’s not to like about drawing, modeling with clay and acting, right? And, a smart Mom knows she can fiddle with the cards and cheat and get the kid one he’s good at so it stays fun. Plus, you can shorten it in advance by saying “We’ll do X number of cards each and that’s it,” before fixing them with that look. Verdict: Accept it as a gift & drag it out twice or three times a year.

Blokus is one of my all-time favorite games It’s very, very hard to cheat except by hiding game pieces. If you are smart you will KNOW how many pieces are supposed to be there and count them all first–saves a lot of fights and tears. If a piece gets lost in one color, take it away from the other colors and it all stays fair.

Happily, I’m normally the only one put-out by the color choice I end up with–good lesson is learned here: Remember that Mom wants red and she might play or at least be happier about playing it!  Ok, ok, the good Mommy thing, too: I can “model” appropriate behavior by accepting, blech, green.

Another great aspect of this game is that it takes a little bit of peace and quiet to think through the moves. It’s not about silly, but rather about SMART and that, to my mind at least, is a good thing. We’ve outgrown Cadoo, but Blokus still comes out when we’re desperate to reconnect with each other–and both kids are today college age. Verdict: Worth it.

Apples to Apples Junior was a very, very popular gift one year. It has the right amount of silly–one player is the “judge” and has to decide which is the most appropriate comparison. It doesn’t necessarily come out rational. In fact it’s often hilarious. This another one you can shorten by setting a time limit or a card limit. You used to be able to by printable cards to add to the set words or people that your family would enjoy. Verdict: Worth it.

A few years ago we upgraded to the “grown up” edition. This has a very good effect on developing vocabulary for the SAT–a pleasant side effect. Unless your kids is super, super into reading something other than Harry Potter or vampire books and unless your family is really into politics, this one isn’t necessarily as fun–at least not till late teenage. Verdict: Skip it till high school.

These are the games all three of us played together. I’ve always found that playing one-on-one with a child (usually when the other was on a sleepover) yields the best results. My daughter and I played hours and hours of Mancala and my son and I played an entire war’s worth of Battleship–we’ve even played it on graph paper. Verdict on THOSE two games: Both of those are worth the money and then some.

For myself there is only one game: SCRABBLE. (I also love Words With Friends on my phone). My kids each preferred Boggle for a long time, but they came around in time. Almost no fights when played one-on-one  Verdict: Worth it.

Sadly, with all the money spent on games the two we’ve played the most cost next-to-nothing. Crazy 8s requires a deck of cards. We seem able to play that without CPS arriving to investigate.

The most requested and most peacefully played game in family history though was homemade. When my kids were little I cut rectangles out of red and green construction paper and wrote a Christmas word on one side. It was a simple matching game–find a pair of matching words. There were two pairs of Christmas stickers (obtained free from some charity mailing)– find that  pair and get a simple hard candy (keep a few in that drawer I mentioned  above). They adored it. We played it way beyond it’s intended age range. Both still look back fondly on it–it always comes up when we do the Christmas tree.  Later we added a Dollar Store Christmas dominos game. It was almost as beloved. Verdict: Sometimes the simplest things give the most pleasure.

One thought on “A real parent’s guide to games as Christmas gifts

  1. sjbraun

    I love your “real” comments! You sound like such a good mom. I agree that simplest is usually best — I remember a few crazy games (mostly from my own childhood) that had mousetrap-level stuff to put together (a particular Charlie Brown game comes to mind). By the time I put it all together, I was usually sick of it and didn’t even want to play. We have enjoyed Apples to Apples Junior. We checked out Cadoo from the church library once but weren’t that thrilled. I guess a lot of games are either personal “yes” or “no” votes. I enjoyed reading this!

    Liked by 1 person

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