Christmas Gift Guide – Games of course!

I firmly believe that there isn’t an age limit on games. Maybe it was because I was raised on games that proudly boasted their upper limit as 99 years of age. The likes of Spears, Waddingtons and MB knew all along that good games are good for everyone. As adults we don’t play enough. It can sometimes feel like we wait to have children around to give us the excuse to be daft, to let go of our inhibitions and immerse ourselves in play.
Play for the sake of play is perfectly valid but if that isn’t reason enough then think about the other benefits – the escapism of games, the mindfulness of them, the exercise for your brain.
And it’s not just me who thinks so…
“Play leads to brain plasticity, adaptability, and creativity. Nothing fires up the brain like play.” Stuart Brown
“Play stimulates the parts of the brain involved in both careful logical reasoning and carefree, unbound exploration.” Greg McKeown.
So for that reason I haven’t organised these by age or, god forbid, gender. If you want to know what sort of games ‘women’ like then I really can’t help you. At all.
I’ve included a wide variety so there’s just a short description of each game – give me a shout if you want any more details. Each title takes you to a website where you can buy the game – I’ve used amazon a lot for ease but you might want to also look on Zatu Games , Goblin Games or pop into a real life shop like Travelling Man.
Gross Games
These are some of my most popular pub games, it’s not just children who find poo inherently amusing. Quick to learn and fairly quick to play. most of these require a reading age of about 7.
You are monkeys flinging poo at each other. Use cards to deflect poo aimed at you or to clean some poo off. You’ll need some way of keeping score – I went for brown counters of course!
Easy to play – the instructions are on the cards.
Work out which animal did the poo in the living room! Race to get rid of all your cards by being the quickest to match the last card played and making plausible accusations! A cross between snap and a memory game. No reading is required in this one.
This is a swear free take on the classic ‘shithead’, also handily has action cards so you don’t have to begin by trying to remember which card does what! Be the first to get rid of all your cards, try and avoid having to pick up the discard pile. It comes with frankly foul scratch and sniff stickers which I suggest you reserve for the loser.
There’s no reason why gross games can’t be strategic! Be the goblin who gobbles the largest amount of disgusting foods. Collect sets of the same food but watch out for a variety of attacks such as vomiting, stealing and being made to eat your greens. Each goblin has their own special ability. It plays up to 12 goblins.
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Fast Reactions
Be the first player to grab the object which is not represented on the card. In the picture below – working from left to right -you would need to grab the grey mouse, then the blue book and the grey mouse again. If you successfully grab the correct object you keep the card, and the person with the most cards wins. This is an addictive and easily portable game. I’m convinced that it uses part of your brain that nothing else uses! It definitely exercises those little grey cells.
Although a lot of people seem to have this it is an absolute classic and I couldn’t do a gift guide and not mention it. It comes in a small round tin, perfect to pop in your bag or in someone’s stocking. Similar to snap but each card features a number of images – you must match one of these with one on another card. You can also get themed versions – we have Star Wars Dobble and the Harry Potter version is on my Christmas list. There are 5 mini games which are entertaining with children or wine but probably not both!
A frantic dice rolling game for up to 4 people. You each get a set of dice which you race to place on the matching dice images. First to get rid of their dice shouts Zonkers! calling an end to that round. But watch out – fastest doesn’t always mean best. A test of observation, speed and strategy.
This also comes with a number of mini games so it’s great value!
Longer, thinkier games.
A co-operative game where you work together to collect the treasure you came for and escape the island. But the island is slowly flooding which hampers your efforts. If you are thinking of trying co-operative games then this is a great starting point.
If you have enjoyed this then you might want to try Forbidden Desert or Sky as these are similar but more challenging.
A short version of the classic Ticket to Ride Europe which was an instant hit and remains a best seller. Collect cards to enable you to place buses on routes across London. You score bonuses for linking certain places and for completing set routes. A nice strategic game with lovely pieces – who doesn’t love playing with tiny buses! It takes about 30 minutes whereas you can be playing the other versions for over an hour. So it’s a good one to try and there are loads of variations of this available so if you enjoy this you may want to collect some of the others.
Simply roll, move and place your dice to make sets of four or more. A lovely tactile strategy game which like all my favourites is quick to learn but gives you lots to think about. There’s also plenty of opportunity to thwart other people’s plans which is always satisfying.
What could be more christmassy than donning your deerstalker or firing up your little grey cells. Settle down with a nice milky drink and these two classics:
A favourite in our house. Work your way round the board collecting clues about the crime. Each case is different and you must race your opponents to solve it and get back to Scotland Yard with the solution. Some of the clues are a little cryptic and some are quite tricky. Fine for adults but children may need some guidance or to team up.
You have to work out who the murderer is by playing a variety of detective and other tactical cards. Then, once you have uncovered the murderer you must prevent them skipping off into the sunset. The murderer meanwhile will be doing everything they can to freeze you out of society and make good their escape. With 5 or 6 players the murderer has an accomplice. Also works brilliantly as a two player game where the murderer is trying to escape while the detective tries to catch them.
Each card has three letters on, turn over a card and trigger the bomb which will begin to tick loudly! Say a word which contains the letters shown (roll the die to determine whereabouts in the word they must be) and pass the bomb on to the next person. Continue to pass it with each player saying another word containing those letters until the bomb explodes (it has a variable timer so you can never know when it will go!). A great game for big groups – loads of wordy fun.
A speedy game of word recognition. Turn over the cards and shout out as you see the words appear. There are bonus cards for getting targeted word lengths and flettered cards for if you slip up under pressure! You can also push your luck by waiting for a longer word and hoping no one else has spotted your word! Each letter has a different value. At the end of the game you add up your pile of claimed words and the person with the most points at the end wins.
Wibbell++ is not just one word game but a whole system of games. There are instructions for 6 different games in the box but there are many more on the website – they will have you creating stories, making up funny phrases, racing to grab as many cards as you can by matching symbols and letters and outwitting your opponent by being the first to come up with a word containing the revealed letters.
This is always a popular game at my events. This quiz is all based on logos and product knowledge including some picture rounds. You can play up to 6 people individually or play in teams if there are more of you. I have the classic logo game but there are lots of versions available including a christmas one.
The rocks have been around a long time and their knowledge is immeasurable. Pit yourselves against them in this fun trivia quiz game. Work together to come up with an answer of 0, 1 or 2 and then give the rocks in the box a shake to see what they think. The double sided rocks have a 1 painted on one side while the other is blank, so they can land displaying 0, 1 or 2. One of the things I like about this is the quirky questions and the fact that the answer is not just given but explained so you might not start out smarter than a rock but hey at least you are learning which is more than can be said for the rocks!
This is another of my most popular games. The answers are all colours and each player has a hand of coloured cards. Reveal the question then place the coloured card or cards that you think are correct face down. When everyone is ready you reveal your answers. I think the idea that you can make an educated guess rather than being unable to answer really appeals. It also has a nice catch up mechanic allowing you to target the lead player with a colour catcher card so you can (for one turn only) steal some of an opponent’s cards.
Charades based games
Gamely Games have a trio of fabulous games two of which fall into this category and can be played in teams. Soundiculous has you mimicking the sounds of various things – fridges, monkeys, karate! while everyone races to be the first to accurately identify the sound.
In Randomise you select three cards (A, B and C) choose a number 1-3 which gives you a phrase like a confused dinosaur selling lemonade.This can then be communicated through description, charades or through pictures.
The pretender is a social deduction game where you must work out who is only pretending to know what the key word is.
All of these come in lovely small boxes – perfect for posting or for stocking fillers.
My wishlist
This seems like a good as place as any to let the big man know what I would like for Christmas this year. Considering I have been exceptionally well behaved this year I would very much like the following:
Splendor – I’m really enjoying Jaipur and if I remember correctly this is similar but plays 4 instead of 2. Nice and strategic with shiny gems!
Muse Card Game This sounds similar to Dixit and the art work looks absolutely beautiful (can you also send me some people who would play this with me as most of my family will hate it with a passion usually reserved for their disdain for Dixit) and Staccups because it looks like crazy fun and I can imagine the whole family playing this over Christmas.
If you’ve got loads of games or just don’t know where to start, why not buy a gift voucher for a games night. Instead of buying more stuff, why not buy an experience, some time together, memories. Book Cards or Die to run a games night for you – we read the rules and bring the games. All you have to do is get the gang together and tell us where and when! Prices start from £8.95 per person.
I hope this has provided you with some inspiration. And if you do fancy treating me to a festive cuppa or a slice of cake, here’s my Ko Fi link!
Join us at a Cards or Die event.
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The Benchmark Games

Some games become benchmarks. You know, you hear about or try a new game and you immediately start comparing it… is it as good as..? Is it as pretty as…? It’s good but it’s a shame the art isn’t as good as…. or the rule book isn’t as clear as…
This is often more about the execution of the design rather than the game itself. It’s not always a negative judgement, it can be a way of categorising games in my head – I often make comparisons when I like the game and just wish one area was more effective. So what are my benchmarks? My points of comparison?
Art Work – Dixit
I’ve yet to receive Fire in The Library and I am excited about how lovely it is, but for now Dixit remains my point of reference when it comes to art work. The cards are beautifully odd. There are many games, like High Society which are gorgeously illustrated but I think it is the oddness of the art and the demand to engage with it in Dixit which most appeals to me. In Dixit, you have to come up with a word or phrase which describes your chosen image closely enough so that some people will correctly identify which image you are referring to, but not so obviously that everybody gets it. This, along with correctly identifying other people’s choices, is how you score points. I think it is the combination of the necessity to minutely study the cards as well as the beauty of them which makes it one of my favourites.
Dixit 2
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Beautiful Components
I have so many games that I love the feel of. Mancala in its hand hewn wooden box, dried olives that drop into tin cups – the look and sound of it is very pleasing. Whenever you take the lid off Cobra Paw people immediately reach out to touch it – the chunky dice, the bright colours and the indented characters on the tiles (or clawfuku as they are correctly known – have fun pronouncing that, I know I do). The components of games can be more memorable than the game itself – that’s why people think they want to play Mousetrap until you remind them that the game is incredibly frustrating and deeply crap. For me the game I think of when I think of beautiful, tactile components which add to the game rather than distract from it or hide a terrible mechanic had become Azul. But then I opened Dice Hospital.
In Dice Hospital, each round you admit new patients (dice) to your ward, treat them and discharge them (hopefully). Each round you can add more wards or more specialists to your hospital. Colourful dice are always a good component for me, and these come in a bag that feels really good! Even without the deluxe add ons you can glory in the thickness of the card stock, enjoy the round counter with its little cut out window, be slightly afraid of the meeples with their medicine bottles and enormous syringes.
The deluxe add ons are brilliant though. The cardboard morgue and blood bad tokens are replaced with wooden ones; the ambulance cards with real ambulances. Ok they’re toy ones but they are gorgeously chunky and no longer do we slide a card towards us, instead we brum our ambulances round to the admissions ward. My next job is to paint them – I can’t wait.
The game itself is excellent. So far we’ve played with 4, 3 and 2 players and enjoyed it each time. There is a lot of decision making, planning and balancing to do as well as a degree of luck which always appeals to me.
So many games are still getting this wrong, from the male pronouns in the instructions to the choice of white characters. My choice of female character is a constant source of irritation – oh, I can be a scantily clad blonde or a busty brunette. Come on, we can do better than this – even Cluedo had a better female character selection than that. It’s almost as if there are some white males who want to keep the hobby white and male. I can only hope they really are the persecuted minority they claim to be.
The situation is definitely improving, I think we just need to avoid complacency. There are lots of games that spring to mind who are getting it right: Dice Hospital and Tortuga are two that spring to mind. But there are two that are at the forefront of my mind when I consider representation: Sub Terra and Gobblin’ Goblins.
Gobblin’ Goblins is a fun game of eating gross food (and I don’t use the word gross lightly. If you were wondering nostalgically about white dog poo, wonder no longer – see it’s on the floor)
But I digress…. at the start of the game, you choose a Goblin. And it really is a choice – you can be fat, thin, male, female, small, tall, able bodied, in a wheelchair. Personally I enjoy the fact that I can be a girl even if more than one other girl is playing. My favourite is Granny Knuckles – she’s not winsomely flashing her cleavage – she’s standing on a stool to give the illusion of height and somehow still managing to look menacing. That’s what I aspire to.
Sub Terra
Trapped in an underground network of caves you need to work together to escape in Sub Terra. The elements: gas, floods, rock falls and hidden monsters known as horrors are all working against you. The balance and use of character’s special abilities is vital for your survival. Your choice of character has never been more important. Each comes with a back story which I love – such a well thought-out detailed touch. It was a relief then that the choice really was a choice. Ironically when offered four female roles including Amirah Malik as team leader, I often plump for Jai Singh – the body guard. Just the sentence ‘we’ve decided that the need for him outweighs the security risks’ made me choose him! I get to shield the party from harm – absorbing shocks and generally being really ‘ard! Those horrors won’t mess with my mates. One day hopefully I won’t open a game and say ‘Oh there’s an Asian woman, and a black man. And the woman is in charge of everything. Yes’. It will become normal, not worthy of remark at all. But as it stands we’re not there yet.
Flavour Text
Temp Worker Assassins for me has the most enjoyable explanations and notes on the playing cards. You are a temp and your mission is to use inventive stationery weaponry to kill off the permanent staff. The characters are well named – the health and safety halfling, the legal aid fairy. The weapons are genius – the machine gun stapler, the compact disc shurikens, the unremorseful ruler. Every word from the rule book to the cards is carefully chosen to help immerse you in the theme. It is part of what makes this such a joy to play. I have reviewed it in full here if you want to find out more.
Clear Rulebook
Nothing is clearer and has just the right amount of detail and example scenarios than the Settlers of Catan rulebooks. It is intimidating when you first get it out of the box as it has a game rules, separate almanac and an A3 game overview sheet. However, that just means that the main Game Rules do not get cluttered with boxes of extra information or definitions and footnotes. I’m sure the layout and order of information is an entirely personal thing but for me this is perfection.
The Game Overview has clear colour diagrams of the set up with a brief summary of the game. You can quickly get the idea of the game from this. It is enough to get you started on your first game. The font is a good size, there are clear headings and numbered steps.
So, for me this is a good start – a manageable amount of information. Then I can move straight on to learning it with a first play-through using the Game Rules as a guide.The way I learn games is by playing them. I know other people approach it differently but if I just read, I find it difficult to process all that information. If I get stuck along the way I refer to the more detailed Almanac.
At every stage the instructions are clear and well expressed. And their choice of pronoun? You. See, I told you – perfect rules.
Box/ Packaging
Rather unfairly the benchmark for this one, rather than being a perfect box – is Uno. When I get a game, I instantly want to check it is not as badly packaged as Uno. Worse than a tuck box, it is two stacks of cards wedged sideways into a tuck box. The box isn’t even big enough. This is a familiar tirade and I know that you are shaking your head in empathetic despair not in judgement. For the purposes of this blog I tried to find more positive comparisons, please use them as your benchmark – it’s not too late for you. The good ones are:
Who Did It? – a lovely magnetic box; games from Big Potato Games – the box has a carefully shaped compartment for all the pieces – a place for everything and everything in its place and Weird Giraffe Games spoil us with extra bags so we can organise our cards and playing pieces to our heart’s content. I am trapped by my negative Uno experiences, always I find myself referring back to that infernal box. The message here – I can tolerate a tuck box but two layers of cards in one flimsy tuck box? You may as well pre-wreck my cards before you package the game.
The benchmark is always shifting. There are always new and improved games that smash your expectations into smithereens, pieces that feel and look like nothing you’ve ever experienced, art work that blows your mind. These may not always be the standard that I judge all things by; but today they are. What about you? What are your benchmark games?

Jolly and Instructive Games

I love vintage games: the look of them; the language on the box and in the instruction booklet; the fact many others have already loved them. Occasionally you get a glimpse of a certain era not only the game but its accoutrements.
As you unpack them for the first time you might remember the scarcity of board games 30, 40 or more years ago. The game you are holding was carefully chosen to join precious other games on a shelf. You can feel that magic, a link to the memories that someone else has cherished.
Trek is a jolly game of mountaineering. Be the first to reach the summit to win. Trek is a delicate balance of resource management and luck. Run out of either supplies or luck and you’re scuppered. You buy resources and as supplies dwindle the price increases. You can gain money as you advance up the mountain but in order to do so you need the correct cards and equipment. This will test your decision making capabilities as well as your luck. Restrictions on the hand limit mean you need to discard cards in order to try to get the one you need but which to discard? There’s the rub! While you are mobilised you are penalised by paying money into the bank thus remaining still for too long diminishes your chances of ever reaching the summit. It’s a clever game: fun and frustrating in equal measure.
I imagine this is a lot like actual mountaineering. I wouldn’t know for sure as there are no mountains in Leeds and I’ve never understood the attraction of risking life and limb to achieve anything. So for me the risk of splashing out on a jeep rather than playing it safe with a donkey is quite sufficient excitement for me.
I discovered it in a charity shop. It was an absolute gem of a find with all the pieces carefully stored and perfectly intact. It had clearly been enjoyed many times and then packed away for a later time that never came.
Jolly: rejoice as your opponent watches the card that stands between advance and certain doom cast onto the discard pile.
Instructive: experience the thrills and spills of mountaineering without chewing your own arm off. Or, indeed, having to stand up.
Touring England
Like a much simpler version of Ticket to Ride, in Touring England you plan your circular route around England taking in as many cities named on your route as possible. In common with many roll and move games popular in this era, there is not a great deal of strategy involved here. But it is an entirely pleasant game and surprisingly engaging. The version I have is a loyal reprint of the original, complete with a 1930 map of Britain. The art work and cars are charming and evocative of the period, although the original came with tin cars which would be even better. The game is perfect for playing with younger members of the family.
Jolly: What could be more jolly than putting the top down on your Roadster, packing a picnic and having a leisurely Sunday drive around England.
Instructive: It’s better than that – it’s educative. Oh, yes – it says so on the box. Perfect for little ones to learn a little English Geography and some bizarre new vocabulary.
Tell Me
The first time I saw Tell Me in a charity shop, I dismissed it. It was plastic and came in a garish 1980s box. It is such a simple premise for a game that having already been put off by the packaging, the modern description didn’t sell it to me at all. Spin the wheel to get a letter, answer a question and the answer must begin with that letter.
I should know by now that the box isn’t everything. Don’t Panic is one of my most popular games and the box is awful. But I’m glad I did pass over the plastic monstrosity because the next time I saw it, it was the 1960s version. The box boasts that it is ‘The Grand Quiz Game’. The spinner is tin and the cards, inexplicably, in both French and English.
I bought it mainly for the tin spinner and how retro it looked. I wasn’t sure that it was a game that would get any love at all or whether it really was too simple. How wrong I was.
Tell Me is a great party game that any number can play, in teams or individually and as long as you know your letters, you are the right age for it. It requires fast thinking – if you’ve enjoyed Anomia, Don’t Panic or Dobble then you’ll know what utter rubbish one* comes out with when under pressure.
*By one, I mean you but I’m being polite. I’ll even make you feel better by telling you about my recent dim wittery:
I spin the spinner, it lands on Y, I turn over card ‘Musical Instrument’ …”Yazoo” I shout gleefully and take the card.
There is a pause… silence…
Everyone else stares with “What are you on about?” eyes…
My partner, sympathetically removing the card from my hand: “She means Kazoo”
But the next time we got Y, guess what the category was? Drinks! So, the moral of the story is, I’m a winner.
Jolly: Mock your friends as they struggle to remember what letter words begin with.
Instructive: Honestly, you’re not going to learn anything new here, but it will make your brain work which is pretty much the same thing. Right?
Hearts is a game that is almost as pointless as Shut the Box or Yahtzee. And yet, you will pass many hours repeatedly trying to get the right combination of dice – in this case to spell out the word hearts. All of these games are strangely addictive to many relatively sane people.
The main charm of hearts lies in its age. This is my oldest game – made in 1914 during World War 1 it speaks to us of a different time. A simpler one in many ways but one fraught with loss. A game of love in a time of national mourning. I always wonder who owned it, perhaps children or a young couple. The dice are faded and worn but still usable. Unless it is a specifically requested game at events it stays at home in it’s own special place on top of the shelves where it won’t get battered or knocked. Over the last 100 years it has been loved. Generations have rolled and re-rolled those dice, determined for them to fall in that winning word.
Jolly: It is jolly if you are a lover of the Shut the Box or Yahtzee mechanic: the pretence of strategy as you select which dice will be re-rolled to spell out Hearts.
Instructive: What can we learn here beyond how to spell Hearts? Something about our own addictive nature? Or something less tangible perhaps – a glimpse into a parlour so very long ago where small hands reverently removed the lid and the dice – bright gold letters on a blood red background spilled onto green baize again and again.
This is a childhood favourite. It was one of the few games we owned and one of even fewer games that my Mum would agree to play. Like Scrabble but with cards, you play your cards onto a shared grid making 4 or 5 letter words. There is a solo variant (an essential part of any childhood – I’m making a massive assumption here that even children with siblings close to them in age sometimes just craved solitude). Despite its compact box, to play Kan-U-Go requires a large space so it doesn’t always come out at events. It’s a perfect game to pack for the holidays though.
I was surprised when I realised it dates back to 1943. I’m a child of the 70s and had always just assumed it was from that era as it was a popular choice even then.
Jolly: this is a very serious word game requiring verbal dexterity and an impressive vocabulary. Until someone plays “knob”.
Instructive: it’s definitely educational. I’ve always been good at spelling and I attribute it to the amount of word games I played as a child. Take it from me, employers don’t want someone who spells knob without its silent k.
Kan-U-Go lived in the cupboard under the stairs with a spring trap game that you removed pieces from without disturbing the other pieces; a copy of Mastermind, Picture Lotto, Perfection, Monopoly and years later a much loved copy of Escape From Atlantis (still one of my prize possessions). Mouse Trap was soon consigned to the attic on the grounds that it took ages and infuriated all of us (more than Monopoly – but that’s another story…)
So, if you imagine the shelves of your past, the cupboard under the stairs or the space on top of your childhood wardrobe and the sparse selection of games there – what do you remember? More importantly what did you keep? Or what do you regret losing?
Join us for games at a Cards or Die event soon!

Games for Schools: trick kids into learning vital skills through board gaming.

This week’s blog responds to questions from teachers and behavioural support workers who provide a safe space in secondary schools at breaks and lunchtimes for vulnerable youngsters. The answer to whether you should have games and which games you should buy is a relevant one in all learning environments. Games are an excellent way of enabling young people to connect: games have a clear and certain set of rules; there is a focus to your interaction which removes the need for having to ‘do chatting’ and in addition winning and losing are both valuable. Winning and losing are opportunities to teach pupils socially acceptable behaviour, where we are able to demonstrate how to be a gracious winner and how to be resilient when we lose. Failure is vital in learning and games allow us to lose in an environment where pupils are safe to take risks. Losing is often how we learn; we learn not to do ‘that’ again and we learn that losing isn’t the terrible disaster we thought it would be. I have played strategy games with adults and children where the response to losing is an instant ‘Right, I know what I’m doing now. Can we play again?’ Games let us experiment with losing when the stakes are low.
When you’re trying to wangle money out of the high ups for some games you can quote Dweck of course:
“Did I win? Did I lose? Those are the wrong questions. The correct question is: Did I make my best effort?” If so, he says, “You may be outscored but you will never lose.” ― Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
or, as I prefer – Michael Jordan:
I have selected a variety of games which reinforce elements of the curriculum and helpfully explicitly linked a valid Learning Outcome so when they say ‘We can’t afford that’, not only can you quote Dweck, you can point to the Learning Outcome and say “See! It’s Educational and Cross Curricular” (they love that!)
Zombie Dice
Zombie Dice is an exercise in probability but kids don’t need to think about that. They just need to be a Zombie and eat as many brains as possible before they are shot. This is quick to learn and quick to play. Roll the dice to determine your fate, score brains, get shot or watch your victim make a run for it. Each turn you roll three dice. You can stop at any time and log your score but if you get shot 3 times you lose any brains you scored that turn.
The dice are weighted to allow you to calculate your risk. Red dice mean you are more likely to be shot, green you are more likely to feast on brains and yellow could go either way. So as they draw the dice you can encourage them to think about how likely it is they’ll have their head shot off!
The standard game is about £12.99 and any number can play.
Learning Outcome: Pupils are learning to work out probability and also to take calculated risks.
Escape from the Curse of The Temple
Escape from The Curse of The Temple is one of our favourites. It’s a co-operative game so, one dies, you all die! You roll the dice to enable you to lay more tiles and find the exit. There are gems to be collected so that you will be able to escape. If you roll black masks your dice will ‘lock’, this means you can’t reroll them until you’ve rolled enough yellow masks or until a teammate rolls them for you. It only lasts 10 minutes so the team work is intense and usually involves a lot of shouting. A CD soundtrack adds to the intensity or, you can play with a timer. It is without fail the game that people want to play again if they lose.
Once you have mastered the basic game there is an expansion pack included with curses that add challenges: you are not allowed to speak; you play with one hand on your head; if your dice goes off the table you’ve lost it! So although it’s a more expensive game (around £37.50) it’s a good investment. It reinforces the idea of learning from failure and also that sometimes it’s fun even when we fail! Up to 5 people can play and it can be played solo so that you are just competing against the game.
Here we are shouting at each other and swearing a bit – we’d had wine which is unavailable at most school break times!
Learning Outcome: Pupils are learning to listen in a busy atmosphere, they make quick decisions and work as a team to achieve a shared outcome.
People have mixed reactions to Fluxx. The title of the game says it all. It is in a constant state of fluxx – each turn you play cards which can change how many cards you pick up; how many cards you play on a turn and even what you need to do to win. I have the Zombie version (are you noticing a theme?!) but there is a basic version too. I have played it with a teenager with Aspergers and I expected that he would hate it but in fact he thought it was funny that the rules were so chaotic and I think it’s been good for him to experiment with rapid change. One minute you’ve got your strategy all sorted, you are definitely going to win on your next turn. Then BAM! rule change, goal change and you’ve lost!
It is quick to learn and you can have any number of people playing. Because losing and winning in this game is so arbitrary it actually makes the game more fun, there is no pressure at all to create a complex, intelligent strategy. There is an element of strategy but that must be constantly adapted which is it’s own challenge.
It costs around £10 and needs 2 or more players.
Learning Outcome: Pupils are learning to constantly adapt to changes and amend their plans accordingly.
Exploding Kittens
Exploding Kittens is a relatively quick game for up to 5 players. The aim of the game is to avoid picking up the Exploding Kitten card and instead try to make an opponent pick it up. The theme is one most people will engage with immediately; the illustrations on the cards are quirky and the text is good fun. Cards carry clear instructions so it is a fun, easy game to play. There is an element of strategy and choices to be considered when playing your cards. The rule that you play as many cards as you like on your go (before picking up a card to end your turn) means that you need to consider how cards work together to avoid the kitten or have it blow up in an opponent’s face!
Definitely a fun choice. It costs around £15.
Learning Outcome: Pupils will plan and adapt plans based on what others do. Reluctant readers will be encouraged to read the cards.
Great Shakespearean Deaths
Available from the RSC, this is basically Top Trumps but with fabulous illustrations by Chris Riddell (a game that can be used to engage reluctant readers, perhaps pointing them towards the Goth Girl novels). There is no strategy or skill involved just some straightforward weighing up of odds and in the style of Horrible Histories, homing in on the gruesome bits of Shakespeare to engage learners. Characters are rated on
  • speed of death
  • gore and brutality
  • fairness
  • piteousness
  • dramatic quality
  • last words
In particular piteousness and fairness could be used to provoke discussion and consideration of the audience’s response to characters as well as Shakespeare’s presentations of them. This could be used to lead pupils into a classic exam question ‘How does Shakespeare present …’
Learning Outcome: Pupils will be more familiar with Shakespearean characters and quotations.
Mr Jack
While it is easy to learn the basics of this and it is easily accessible, you can also enable pupils to employ a lot of strategy. When we first played we played in a very straightforward way and soon realised that there is a much deeper, more strategic level. Much of this lies in the object of the game and the cleverness of the asymmetry: one player — Mr Jack must avoid detection while the second player – The Inspector must discover Mr Jack’s assumed identity before time runs out. The Inspector moves the character tokens (Holmes, Watson and Toby the dog) around the edge of the board, looking down the alleys for Mr Jack. Meanwhile, Mr Jack must try to either block or maximise their view to stop the Inspector deducing Mr Jack’s identity. The game is well balanced; neither character has any advantage over the other. It is an excellent strategy game for two players with some links to English Literature; Holmes fans will approve of the use of Toby the dog.
Mr Jack costs about £12.99
Learning Outcome: Pupils can strategise and plan, changing their plans as they find out new information.
Another game with a very simple premise, allowing pupils to learn the game quickly, yet with endless strategic opportunities is Tantrix. As a bonus it is made from Bakelite and comes in a handy carrying pouch so is probably the most durable of all the games recommended here.
You choose a colour and then you must form the longest line or largest loop of that colour. There are some extra rules where you must fill certain spaces first and you can’t create 4 sided gaps but other than that, that’s it. The beauty of games like this is that your brain isn’t filled with rules you are instead absorbed by the challenge. It is another game that people want to play multiple times once they have grasped the objective.
Plays up to 4 and there are also solo variations and puzzles that you can play. It costs about £20.
Learning Outcome: Pupils will consider patterns and strategy; taking time to consider their strategy and making predictions about the strategy of others.
There are so many good games out there that can be used effectively in schools (and workplaces) to aid learning and the development of teamwork, this is just a selection to get you started. Even Plato agrees, and he knew loads about stuff:
“Do not keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.” -Plato
Let me know what games are a success at your school.
If you want to find out more about board gaming in schools email me to arrange a visit.
Come along and play these fab games at a Cards or Die event. (4)

Push Your Luck Games – warning: mild peril.

Push your luck games are the marmite of tabletop. Often involving little or no strategy, instead they rely on risk calculation and a large helping of luck. You can calculate that the odds of being shot in the head are low and then… boom… no head! I know. I’ve been there. Frequently. I guess that’s the other marmite element; I lose my head and then just have another game. It is high speed risk taking with the consequences removed. In these games I assume an air of confident optimism (sadly lacking from other areas of my life) usually resulting in my sudden demise and perhaps reinforcing the theory that in real life everything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
‘Big Risks for High Rollers’. Yes! This encapsulates me: a high roller from the 70s.
I picked up Waddingtons’ Stun from the UK Expo bring and buy sale. It plays up to 6 which is always a bonus at events where often people like to play in larger groups.
You have to collect 5 chips to win. And there’s the rub. I’m already hooked because I believe I can win and easily too.
I’m realising now that this explains why I spend a proportion of every decent UK beach holiday with my nose pressed against a 2p machine that’s “just about to drop. I’ll stay here. Change this £1 for 2ps. GO!”
You turn over cards, stopping only when your nerve fails. Turn up a stun card and your turn “ENDS IMMEDIATELY” as it says in the rules. Verbatim. Shouty capitals and all.
There are also Stun Plus and Stun Minus cards with which to scupper your opposition, always an enjoyable aspect in a game.
Stop turning up cards in time, save them and trade them for a chip: slow and steady wins the race. But, where’s the fun in that? One more… go on… I dare you!
by Ludi Creations. Plays 2 – 5. Age 6.
The most striking thing about this game is its beauty. When I saw Daniel Solis’ name on the box I was not surprised at all (Kodama and Koi Pond are also beautiful games). So beautiful was it that it took me a while to realise that it is at its root a push your luck game.
First, let’s take a moment to enjoy the board. I challenge you to open it without going ‘Ahhhhhhh’ in what you believe to be an angelic voice! It’s a pop up book of a board and it’s mini.
Then, we learn that our heroic mice must defeat the red dragon and recover the Sacred Golden Cheese. I was already completely sold on it by this point.
The clever bit in Mythe is that, rather than drawing up from a central pile, you draw cards from other players’ hands (one by one) stopping before you hit an obstacle card. When you finish your turn by advancing on your cheese quest or by fatally overestimating your mousely strength, you give cards away to other players.
So, you just give away all the good cards and then draw them back up next go? Right?
No. Because to defeat that pesky dragon before your cheese becomes fondue you need to hold a legacy item. Obviously. How else would a mouse defeat a dragon? Also, by the time your turn comes round the other player may have a very different hand.
Clever, eh? There’s more randomness than 52 card pick up, there’s second guessing what other people are up to and there’s peril little mouse, so much peril.
You will want to play this many, many times.
Zombie Dice
by Steve Jackson
Another game that accommodates many players, Zombie Dice is a quick fun game that is always a hit at events. You are a zombie, you must roll the dice to find out if you eat braaaaaiiiiins, get shot in the head or if your victim escapes.
Re-roll escaping victims or just keep rolling until you fear for your head. Three shots to the head and your head fully explodes.
But never fear, it will regrow in time for your next turn. It is a low scoring game and grasping that is the route to success.
The best part of this is that the dice are weighted to allow you to calculate your risk. Red dice mean you are more likely to be shot, green you are more likely to feast on brains and yellow could go either way.
Yahtzee boasts that it is a game of skill, not reliant on luck. MB clearly understood that luck sells less than skill but if we’re honest surely being lucky is the only way to win this!
Classic Yahtzee and Yahtzee Word are the sort of games that sound like nothing when you describe them, but are super addictive to play. Roll the dice and collect points for words or sets of dice. Every round you must record a score – you can choose to record a zero for a category and try instead to get an ‘easier’ category. For instance, you may decide there’s no way you will roll 5 of a kind or get a 7 letter word but you may get a 3 letter word or 3 of a kind. So, you put a 0 next to 5 of a kind and go instead for 3 of a kind. It’s hard to capture the addictive nature of them – I think it’s the fact you are pushing your luck – deciding that rather than putting a zero for a low scoring category you will risk it and go for the big scores, which makes it so compelling. You have just as much chance of winning as your opponent. They can not outwit you or just be cleverer or better than you. But maybe these are just the words of someone who lost too many games as a child and is now being destroyed on a regular basis by a smart, ruthless 12 year old.
There are bonus points to be achieved if you score certain amounts or fill certain boxes which lend more importance to the decision making process. Yahtzee word does feel more reliant on skill than Classic Yahtzee as creating words under pressure is a challenging task, and the addition of the timer makes it more pressurised which is always more fun!
I love pushing my luck in these games. Weighing up your options and calculating your chances carefully is the way to boss all of these games. But, to get the most enjoyment out of them…. slowly, carefully, reveal the card or roll the dice, then shout at the cards and dice, shout at people who are winning or losing, and take big risks – after all you won’t really lose your head.
What’s your favourite type of game? Strategy? Luck? Something else?
Come along and play these at a Cards or Die event.