Five Great Classic Family Board Games

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Five Tips for Running a Good LRP

In my all years of gaming one of my favourite things to do has been to run freeform live role-play (LRP) events for a very special audience. If you’ve never done a live game then I should explain that it is a more immediate and more unpredictable experience than a table top role-playing game. And if you’ve never role-played at all then think of it as like one of those How to Host a Murder Mystery box things, but with more people and no script. Or like one of the shows run by Secret Cinema or Punchdrunk Theatre. Whatever your background the essentials are that you get to dress up, pretend to be someone else for a while, and possible solve some puzzles, defeat the bad guys and/or act the goat all at the same time. If that sound like fun then that’s because it is. Or it can be when it is done right.

Image(photo by Mike Nudd)

I am part of a group that has been doing their own freeform LRP games for over 15 years, and I’ve been creating or helping with the games for this group for 10 of them. Our approach to these games has changed a lot over this time frame as our experience has grown (as has the size of the group). We’ve built up a collective, shared experience which can be tapped into to make sure that each and every game is both successful and entertaining.

One consequence of all this is that I’ve become rather spoilt – I have so much fun at these things that when I go out to participate in a live event run by any other group I am continually disappointed. Even veteran groups that claim to know what they are doing often fall far short of expectations. And while my expectations might be higher than the average punter, there still isn’t any excuse for rookie mistakes or lazy writing.

All of this makes me want to try and encapsulate what I think works and what I think doesn’t work, not just for the benefit of the groups that I know, but so I can point new gamers I meet back at the list for posterity’s sake… 😉

1) If You Have a Plot, Share It

Narrative games can be tough, as you need to give every player’s character a backstory and some way to interact with the plot that will unfold. One common problem I’ve seen in games is that plot sensitive information is hidden away so deeply that players struggle to find it.

Or only one player has the information, and they choose not to share it with the right people (or at all). Because it’s often very difficult to predict how players will use the material they are given I have developed a rule of thumb that if I need a critical piece of plot information disseminated into the crowd I will seed the same information in multiple places – sometimes two, sometimes more.

For similar reasons this is why I prefer the ‘blast’ style of game where all characters are pre-written by the gamemasters, rather than by the players themselves. While it’s often not possible to control players once the game is on motion, the ‘blast’ method does allow you to define very clear narrative starting points and very clear character goals.

Having said that it *is* still possible to exert control if you see things aren’t going the way you planned. Some GMs convince themselves that player freedom is sacrosanct but that’s actually not true – in a narrative game the *story* is sacrosanct and the GM should do whatever it takes to make sure it stays on track.

If a player is holding out on the group and it’s not good for the story then ask them to stop, and if necessary explain why. If you have extremely stubborn players then you can incentivise collaborative play with bonus plot or experience points. Another approach is to hold a few players back to parachute into the game as special non-player characters (NPCs) who can seed items and information if you can see the story is bottle-necking.

Image(photo by John Callaghan)

2) Every Character is the Centre of His or Her Story

Another problem that commonly occurs in narrative games is that the GMs only believe in one story – the over-arching plot that they write to drive the game. In practice this approach has an unhealthy and polarising effect on the group. Players who get to participate in the ‘big plot’ have a wonderful time and get to feel validated. However, many more players will fail to find the ‘big plot’ (or will get shut out by other players) and a result will feel disappointed and short-changed.

Organisers should remain aware that – particular in paid-for events – an attendee can reasonably expect the same amount of care, attention and ‘spotlight’ as everybody else. The way to ensure this is not to write one single ‘big plot’, but a myriad of smaller interconnecting ones. If a player is given his or her own set of goals and is motivated to achieve them then he or she can measure his or her own success independently of everyone else.

And if as a GM you’re not interested in giving all of your players a fair shake then I’m afraid you’re simply doing it wrong. And if you’re a player on the wrong end of this then I would suggest finding (or starting) a different group.

Image(photo by Elaine Garrod)

3) Fill Up the Sandbox

Another thing I see quite a lot in live events is people standing around complaining of nothing to do. This isn’t necessarily a failure of imagination – the guidelines set out by the GMs, writers and organisers implicitly define what is and is not possible during the game.

The net consequence of exhausting the goals on your character sheet is that you no longer have any clear guidance on what to do next. If you have a strong sense of your character and the guts to play them to the hilt then so be it, but not all players are cut from the same cloth. For some a lack of instructions is read as a lack of incentive to engage at all.

For this reason when I’m constructing a new event I’m always thinking about secondary goals and other activities that can be run simultaneously within the game – ‘mini-games’ within the game if you will. By structuring in other social and competitive activities within the same game space you provide other things for people to do in addition to their own personal goals.

In fact, this approach can be taken to the extreme such that players are not given personal goals, and their story is entirely built from the activities they choose to engage with within the game space. Hence the term ‘sandbox’. This approach tends to work well (and often better than the narrative approach) with larger groups.

Essentially, presenting too many choices to a player is always better than presenting too few. And if in a rich, sandbox environment a player still complains of having nothing to do then they only have themselves to blame.

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(photo by John Callaghan)

4) Ice-Breaking and Team Building

One of the most common problems I see in games is that they start slowly – or may even misfire – because of the getting-to-know-you process. Even in situations where the players know in each other in real life, they still need to go through the motions of learning the names, personalities and predilections of all the characters everyone else are playing in the game. For players that are also strangers this can be a nightmare, particularly for those that have any social anxiety.

There are however plenty of ways to dodge these issues. For example, if you make everyone name badges that also have some details about profession or occupation then the players can identify each other a little more easily. Better yet, on a player’s character sheet you can name other key player characters and give them background information, telling them what they should know and how they should feel about each relationship in advance.

For a sandbox style game a crucial thing to add is a simple activity that triggers interaction between player characters that do not know each other. It could be a simple, social parlour game, or some sort of focused activity requiring a team to be formed on the spot. Whatever the activity, it can serve to break the ice between players who – for whatever reason – might not otherwise approach each other at all.

Starting players in pre-determined teams is also a good ice-breaker – if you learn who is in your team first you have some camaraderie to distinguish you from the rest of the larger group. This philosophy can even be extended to having each team start separately in unique locations, to build both community within each team, and boundaries between the teams.

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(photo by Matt Kirk)

5) Immersion, Immersion, Immersion

When you are running an event one big draw for the players is not just being other people, but feeling like you are in a different place and/or a different time. And on a meagre or non-existent budget it can be very difficult to think of ways to build that sense of immersion. You can ask your players to come in an appropriate costume of course, but that isn’t necessarily enough on it’s own.

Any self-respecting stage director would be able to tell you that one of the simplest ways to develop a certain tone or mood is to use the right lighting and the right sound. An empty space does not necessarily need to be dressed at all if you can play music that evokes the right era. Use lamps or spots to focus the attention of the crowd on the right areas (and use shadow to draw attention away from things which you would prefer to be hidden).

Another easy way to establish the mood of your game is in the materials you give out. Don’t just think about exposition, but about the cosmetic presentation. What font can you use on the character sheet? What turns of phrase can you use in the character background? What other material can you supply that would put the player in the right frame of mind?

If money was no object then most enterprising LRP groups would hire or build their own film set to play in, but the budgets or most real groups would never stretch that far. A more realistic goal is to collect generic materials that can be used repeatedly in different combinations to evoke different environments. A good place to start is something simply like tablecloths, or similar sheets to hang on walls. Table lamps and/or battery-powered candles can generate great mood lighting without the need for professional equipment. Invest in compilations of music by era, or film soundtracks.

One great way to wow a player is when they gain some sort of item, rather than give him or her some sort of abstract card or paper proxy, give him or her a real, physical prop instead. If they have an id card then why not get it made and laminated? If they find an ancient tablet, why not carve one out of polystyrene and give it to them to hold in their own hands? If they have money, why not give them ‘real’ dollar bills?

A good prop can also become a puzzle or the fulcrum of a story. What if there is special writing on it that needs to be deciphered? What if it houses a secret compartment that needs to be discovered? What if it part of a larger set of objects that also need to be found? Clever objects can hold player attention on their own for quite a long time – and you will find that players will fight much harder over real things that they can see, smell and touch for themselves.

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(photo by Mike Nudd)

Keep it Simple

Well ok so technically this would be a sixth rule, but I consider this one to be more a point of common sense than a gaming commandment. The point really being that if you choose to be a GM, don’t bite off more than you can chew. If there is a simpler, safer or more efficient way of giving your players a similar experience than take it. Don’t make like difficult for yourself if you don’t need to because the process is tough enough as it is.