Although the board game hobby has evolved considerably in the last 30-40 years, one thing that has remained fairly consistent is the mentality of some publishers that family board games don’t actually have to be very good. For some weird reason it’s deemed acceptable to churn out any old rubbish.
I suppose in part it’s because the bar of quality was not set very high by the early leaders in the marketplace. Everybody knows the ‘big names’ such as Monopoly, Risk and Cluedo, even though they are all pretty terrible games. More recently I could point to all the family board games based on Harry Potter and Doctor Who – all of which display a shocking lack of originality, creativity or replayability.
However, despite this general lack of innovation in this area of the hobby a few games have over the years managed to stand apart from the crowd. They may have looked like novelties but they have withstood the test of time as genuinely rewarding game experiences.
These games are very close to my heart. If you have any of them on a shelf somewhere then please don’t underestimate their value. And if you see them going as a bargain in a charity shop or on eBay then please don’t miss your chance.
1) Escape from Atlantis
Escape from Atlantis was a game released by Waddingtons in 1986 for 2-4 players who compete to save the most people from the sinking island of Atlantis. In the process you can control sea monsters which you can use to harass the other players and stop them from rescuing their people.
The game components alone were enough to convince me. The island is composite of 3d hexagonal sections which you remove piece by piece to represent the slow sinking of the island. Each sea monster is also represented in 3d plastic, as are the boats which you can use to rescue your people.
Although it looks quite cute the game is unequivocally cutthroat. There is some strategy to removing island pieces which your opponent’s people are standing on, and you can also use the monsters to eat boats and people, or blockade an opponent’s escape. The game doesn’t care how many people you save – only that you save the most. Hence sacrifices are common in pursuit of victory.
The game is still in circulation now in a revised version by Stronghold Games with card hexes and wooden pieces. The original version had far superior production values although it is increasingly difficult to get hold of.
2) Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs
Another Waddingtons game with excellent production values and 3d pieces released in 1985, Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs came complete with rubber dinosaurs, lava and a flapping pterodactyl. Honestly, what more do you need?
The aim of the game was to steal coins from the temple at the far corner of the valley and get them to the exit in the opposite corner without getting eaten by dinosaurs. After moving your adventurer you draw and play an event card, which usually means moving one or more dinosaurs to intercept your opponents.
There was a certain frustration level in getting screwed by the other players on every trip, and eventually the lava would come down and block the whole board off. In fact if I’m honest it wasn’t such a great game, but there was a certain fun factor that made you play over and over anyway.
3) Escape from Colditz
Sold in a typical long-format box and advertised on TV at Christmas, Escape From Colditz hardly qualified as a family game at all. It’s quite difficult to picture sitting down at the holidays with the folks and deciding who is going to play the Nazis.
Published by Gibsons & Sons in 1973 (and subsequently by Parker) with the input of Major P.R. Reid, MBE, a veteran of the Second World War, the game modelled the attempted escape of prisoners from the legendary Colditz prison in Germany. Sort of a semi-co-op game, each Allied player worked together against the Nazi player’s guards, but ultimately whichever Allied team got the most men out was the winner.
The game was not only long, but tough – an enterprising Nazi player could keep all the POWs in the detention block on almost permanent rotation. And while some of the escape routes were quite feasible (tunnels, cut wire fences) you also needed the right documents once you got out or you’d still fail (shot on the border).
I still bring this one out now and then for nostalgia’s sake – every self-respecting board games enthusiast should try it at least once. To keep it short and sweet though I normally house rule that whoever controls the first POW to successfully escape is the winner.
4) Formula 1
The first edition of this Waddingtons game was released in 1962 and there have been many reprints over the years. This is probably the best car racing game I’ve ever played – no other game even in recent years has come close.
Every player is given a dashboard of dials to track the speed, brake wear and tyre wear of their car. Each move each turn is dictated by the speed on the dial, and you can accelerate or brake before each move up to certain limits. Get blocked in by the car in front and you have to stop and adjust your speed to match. Go too fast around a corner and make a hazard roll. Hazards usually lead to type and brake wear which make it increasingly hard to control the car.
Although the rules are quite simple, the carefully designed track comes with narrow lanes and bottlenecks which make every decision absolutely crucial. The final lap is often nail-bitingly close.
5) Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Two different board games were released as officially licensed from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show in the year 2000. The first by Susan Prescot Games for the UK market was dreadful. The second released in the USA by Hasbro/MB was actually pretty awesome.
In the Hasbro version 1-4 players take on the role of the good guys – Buffy, Xander, Willow and Oz. Another player is evil and selects one of four big bads – The Master, The Judge, The Mayor or Adam, which are backed up by a number of other minions. Each big bad has a different objective and the good players win if they stop and kill him.
The board is a grid of squares with different buildings marked all the way around the edge. Different coloured spots allow the good guys to pick up weapons and spells. Black spots let the evil player draw evil cards. Fighting is done with special dice, and if the good guys get bitten by a vampire and don’t take precautions they could become vampires to join the evil side. A circular tracker in the middle of the board tracks the phases of the moon (which influences when the werewolves are in human or wolf form) and a day phase (which forces all vampires to hide indoors).
The game is layered with theme and really captures the spirit of the TV show. It’s also surprisingly balanced and the evil player can easily win if they can separate the members of the group and minimise his or her chances of facing Oz in werewolf mode.