Classic games and their more fun alternatives — Children’s games

For those of you struggling with last-minute holiday gifts for your little rapscallions, I’m resurrecting my series on better versions of classic board games, this time focusing on those for kids. Fair warning: most of these are one notch more complex than the older games I’m dissing and dismissing, but all are very appropriate most elementary kids. For those with very young kids, Animal upon Animal checks in at the youngest, appropriate for ages 4 and up.

Chutes & Ladders

  • What was great about this game — Very little. Ok, that may be a little harsh. This game is designed for REALLY young children. It helps them learn to count and follow directions, which are important milestones. And it’s also a good template for cause and effect.
  • What was terrible about it — There are literally zero choices in the game, so you’re just teaching a child to be an automaton. Roll, move, roll, move, roll, move.
  • What you should play instead: Mole Rats in Space — This is a cooperative game where you and your fellow mole rats are on a space station inexplicably full of chutes and ladders. It has also inexplicably been invaded by snakes. You and your mates need to collect your supplies and get to the escape pod before the snakes get you. You’re still moving yourself (or the snakes!) every turn, but you’re choosing whether to move right or left. That simple nuance adds loads of richness to the game as you’re rewarded for thinking ahead to achieve objectives and avoid obstacles. Plus, the cooperative dynamic encourages kids to help one another.

Sorry, Trouble

  • What was great about these games — Landing on an opponent and sending them back to the start is one of the most emotionally gratifying “take that!” moves in gameplay. And the decisions on which pieces to move, balancing bringing new pawns out and trying to get those already out home, is interesting light strategy.
  • What was terrible about them — The tyranny of the dice. This can become particularly infuriating at the end as you’re trying to roll a one to move one last space. Also, there’s no immersive theme here. You’re just occupying a sterile board with colors
  • What you should play instead: Camel Up — You’re still moving around a board based on dice rolls but in an exciting camel race. Furthermore, the point of the game is betting on where camels will finish (rather than trying to finish first) and using shenanigans to influence the outcome. Plus, when camels end up on the same space, you literally stack them forming a zany camel tower. Note: I think this may be out of stock on Amazon right now.

Connect 4

  • What was great about this game — The rules are simple (take turns and get four in a row before your opponent) but the strategy is complex as you have to simultaneously look for opportunities while making sure you’re blocking your opponent. If you’re like me, you’re always so focused on offense that when your adversary places their fourth disc, it comes as a total shock that they already had thee in a row. Every. Single. Time.
  • What was terrible about it — This game has lots of staying power, so I’ll go easy on it. It does have a bit of a ceiling because it boils down to a larger version of tic-tac-toe. And it only works for two players, which is annoying when three or four friends are together.
  • What you should play instead: Azul — This is a beautiful tile laying game where each player is trying to fill out their own board with different tile designs. But because all the players draw from a common pile, you’re looking not only at what you need to fill out your board but also at what your opponents are trying to grab. The scoring (and thus the strategy) is one notch up from Connect 4, which means it’s a little more interesting over time but still very accessible. And it works great for two to four players.


  • What was great about this game — The joy of getting a hit. Like all hidden information games, there’s a wave of euphoria that comes when you finally figure out what’s going on.
  • What was terrible about it — Though the skin and concept are fun, ultimately this boils down to a long guessing game, which really bogs down if/when both players are still trying to find the other’s destroyer. And it only works for two players.
  • What you should play instead: Sonar — Have you ever wondered why the ships in Battleship just stay put the whole time to get attacked? So have I! Sonar fixes that logical flaw. You and your opponent are dueling submarine captains trying to simultaneously hunt and evade your opponent. The rules are a significant step up from Battleship but still accessible to older children, and they make the game play much richer and closer to reality. There’s also a nifty four-player team version where one player is the captain and the other is the radio operator. For the adult gamers with a gaggle of friends, Captain Sonar is another step up in complexity that scales to eight players in an epic sea battle.


  • What was great about this game — There are lots of “dexterity games” out there, games that require carefully attuned hand movements to succeed. However, only Operation has lights and sounds making you jump out of your skin when you mess up. In that vein, Operation is an early forerunner of video games.
  • What was terrible about it — This game is great fun for what it is, but what it is is just rote draw a card, try to extract the bone.
  • What you should play instead: Animal upon Animal — In truth, this is more reverse Jenga than Operation, but it’s such a great game I had to slide it into this list. Players take turns building a pyramid of differently shaped animals, trying hard to keep the pyramid from collapsing. It preserves the surge of stress of both Operation and Jenga when you make a mistake, and it adds the complexity of trying to figure out which animals to place and give to your opponent.