The New Era of Table Top Gaming

When you think of table top gaming, what is the first thing that pops into your mind? Is it Monopoly – or as my mother likes to call it, Monotony? Maybe Twister? Jenga? Or maybe a true flash from the past: Mystery Date?

Commercially marketed, mass-produced games can be fun. But what if I told you that there’s an entirely different face to the gaming industry, with a hundred-thousand-plus titles available, and something to suit everyone’s personal tastes, interests and budget?

In some ways, it’s easier to hand your kids a copy of some video game and just let them have at it. And with some of those games, it’s possible – and even enjoyable – to play together as a family. However, offering attractive alternatives to video games and TV shows, such as a shelf full of interesting games, helps my kids self-regulate their screen time.

As parents, and even as peers in social groups, we are striving for a more human, connected experience. Maybe that’s why there has been a resurgence of interest in table top games.

In 2013, the Geek & Sundry team hosted the first-ever International Table Top Day. Wil Wheaton’s infamous Table Top Vlog on YouTube is now in its third season. The recently Kickstarted Exploding Kittens  game raised a whopping $8.7 Million by nearly 220,000 backers in 28 days. Yes, I was one of those backers.

In my experience, some of my family’s most memorable and exciting evenings are spent sitting around a table with friends, kids, food and games. The act of playing a board game provides countless benefits  including (but not limited to): Social interaction, relationship building, strategic thinking, stress management, lessons in sportsmanship, family bonding and good, creative fun!

Today’s Games – There Is Something For Everyone

We didn’t play board games when I was a kid. My mother greatly disliked them, and looking back to the commercial game choices available in the late 70s, I really can’t blame her for her disdain.

However, my mind on the topic changed drastically when my cousins introduced me to fantasy role-playing games in junior high. That experience propelled me into an entirely new world of games and gaming that had been previously unknown to me. I befriended the gamer crowd in high school, and I continued my table top journey with role-playing systems and themed card games.

I’d had no idea that games existed beyond the titles at the toy store. Back then, in the late 80s and early 90s, they were relatively difficult to find. You had to know where to look. We’ve come a long way since then. A quick search on Amazon reveals 52,548 titles listed under Games. Today’s game titles include a little something for every taste and personality.

Does your family enjoy movies, music or sports? Try some of the trivia games that are specific to genres and teams.

Do you like fantasy and adventure? Look for games like 7 Wonders and Settlers of Catan, where you build entire civilizations and lead them to greatness in the span of an hour. For something a little more complex, but wicked-fun and packed with elements of strategy and luck, pick up a copy of Smallworld.

Do you want to play cooperatively? There are games for that. Forbidden Island requires the players to work together as a team. Yes, your family can, and will, lose to the game box!

Maybe you just want some belly-aching laughter and quick play. Reach for a fun little card game called Poo.

Purchasing Your Games – Beyond Amazon

Are you completely overwhelmed after looking at the tens of thousands of games on Amazon? Have you stood in the aisle of your local toy store, wondering which games to get without the benefit of being able to read the rules? Are you wondering if those recommended ages are truly meaningful?

If you have a question regarding the appropriateness of a game for your children, and you don’t feel like leaving the comfort of your home, check out BoardGameGeek.com. Their forums are active and helpful. Also, scan through the back episodes of Wil Wheaton’s Table Top Vlog. Watching his episodes is almost as good as playing the game yourself. His thorough explanation of rules leaves very little room for confusion, and the groups who he brings together for game play are quite fun to watch.

However, your local game shop is your best source for finding the perfect titles for your family. The shop nearest to me is a gamer haven, with tall shelves lining the walls holding thousands of titles. The center of the store hosts open tables where the owners will gladly play through some demo rounds of any title on the shelf.

Your local game shop owners live and breathe the games they sell. They know every rule, and how to select the best games to fit your family’s needs. They host open-table nights, where anyone can come play, learn and even compete. Most of the shop owners love to teach their knowledge to families with children. They understand that the kids you are raising around your table top are their next generation of customers.

Rethink the Rules – Be Flexible

I’ve always kept a collection of unique games. When I had children of my own, I swore I’d raise them as avid table top gamers.

That didn’t happen until recently, when I readjusted my own attitude toward games and rules.

I was always stuck on game rules, figuring that the games I love would be too complicated for my young children. Many games suggest starting ages of 8, 10, 12 or even older. Sure, there are games targeted at younger children, and they are not without great benefit. We played many rounds of Chutes & Ladders, Memory and Candyland. But face it – how many hours can an adult spend picking colored cards and running a gingerbread man through a candy forest?

After reading similar stories of gamer frustration online, I found the key: Change the rules.

When my son was four and my daughter was five, I received a copy of Quelf as a gift. The game is hysterically fun, requiring participants to perform all sorts of silly acts. It requires a lot of reading, and when we got it, my son still struggled with sight words. I decided then that Quelf was a team game, and that it had no secret cards.

Sometimes, game rules get extremely complicated. See if your favorite game has “beginner” rules listed online, and augment further if necessary. There are no laws against making up your own rules for your existing game boards and pieces. As long as your game is fun, provides an opportunity for any player to win and it makes some sort of logical sense, just go with it!

Rule augmentations also work both ways. It is just as valid to introduce complexity as it is to simplify.

I bought my son a game called Pirate vs. Pirate when he was six. It’s an insanely fun, fast game with a very basic set of rules. By the third time playing, my son decided that the provided rules made for short games and predictable outcomes.

We worked together to formulate some additional rules. My son first suggested that we roll dice during pirate attacks to determine the winner. This very simple change from “the attacking pirate always wins” added elements of both chance and strategy to game play. We then decided to slow down pirates that held treasure by cutting their movement from two dice to one. We have continued to play the game for the last three years with our augmented rules, and it’s still one of our favorite family games.

By changing up game rules, kids learn to adapt, and they learn to compromise. We have had many discussions about fairness, and not changing rules mid-game. Additionally, when your family is comfortable with augmenting rules, old games become fresh and new with your personal twists.

Gaming on a Budget – Finding the Free-to-Cheap Games

Your average, high-volume-print game at the toy store goes for a decent amount of money. Many games have expansions, keeping you buying. And buying. And buying.

BoardGameGeek.com provides an excellent resource for Print-and-Play games.  Some of the free games only require a printer to get started. You can repurpose supplies from games you already own, such as dice, markers, plastic pawns, etc. to use as game pieces. If you’re short on game pieces, you can also use coins, rocks or small toys. Be creative!

There are also many reasonably priced, themed card games on the market. Wig Out, Zombie Dice, Poo, Fluxx, The Great Dalmuti and others are all low-priced games that provide hours of hysterical fun. Take The Great Dalmuti to your next family gathering. See who really reigns supreme!

When looking at budget, don’t dismiss the basic deck of cards, either. There are countless games to be played with a standard deck of cards. Pagat.com touts itself as the “Largest Collection of Card Game Rules on the Internet.” While I haven’t independently verified that claim, it would seem that there is quite a bit of knowledge on that site. However, a quick web search reveals millions of sites detailing unique and varied card game rules.

Game Nights – Drop the Schedule

If you’re anything like me, the idea of another Family-Scheduled-Anything makes you want to run for the hills. We already have school, ice skating, hockey practices, clubs, choir concerts… Game Night? On a schedule? Really? That’s not going to happen.

In order to encourage gaming, we made our games accessible and enticing. Our dining room hosts a large bookcase filled with nothing but family-friendly board games. It sits next to the table so that games can be easily grabbed, played and stored when finished.

When the kids have friends over, they’ll almost always reach for a game or two. When we have adult nights with other couples, we tend to do the same (though we do keep our copy of Cards Against Humanity stored elsewhere). Having our family games accessible and inviting, but not forced, makes them an enjoyable and integral part of our home environment.

The True Beauty of Today’s Table Top Games

Once you navigate beyond the waters of the commercial board game, you will find that the table top industry has a little something for everyone. Table top gaming is a perfect activity for bringing your immediate family together for a night of cheers, sneers and laughter. However, the true beauty of these games is that you will want to play them. They aren’t just something to do with your kids – they’re simply something to do.

  • Use them to connect with your spouse.
  • Enjoy them with other adult friends.
  • Bring them along to family parties.
  • Provide them as fun alternatives to video games and movies, and encourage your kids to get off those screens.

Immerse yourself in play, and connect with your family on a multitude of levels through the simplicity and beauty of the modern table top game.

photo credit: alsen via pixabay cc

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