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The Six Best Family Vacation Board Games

A lifelong gaming enthusiast and game designer. Life is a game—game on!

The Top Board Games for Family Vacations

Board (and card) games have some immense advantages when compared to video games, especially when taken to a vacation. Let's list 'em!

  1. Settlers of Catan
  2. Monopoly Deal
  3. The Great Dalmuti
  4. Citadels
  5. Mancala
  6. Go

Why Board Games?

  • A board game doesn't require any electricity. There is no need to worry about buying new batteries or finding the right power socket. Yes, they are much more eco-friendly to boot. These are very strong considerations when going hiking for example.
  • Board gaming is ultimately a social activity. If you want to reconnect with your kid who is playing that damn handheld or mobile all the time, introduce him or her to a quality board game you can play and share together.
  • Board games develop imagination, creativity and visualization skills... Something video games actually retard. Your child will visualize the "action" taking place in a largely abstract board game space and make connections between the abstract rules and very concrete game effects. Board games are to video games what reading is to cartoons. In short, playing quality board games has been proven to increase IQ, especially in children.
  • Board games develop creativity and self-confidence. I know I already said this but I cannot emphasize it enough. Unlike video games, which are "closed packages" whose contents you can only use but not alter, every board game is just asking for imaginative children (and adults) to make modifications to the rules and components. If you want to turn your child from a "consumer" into a "creator" there are very few toys that can compete with board games.
  • Board games are fantastic for socializing, especially with strangers you're likely to meet during your vacation. A board game is a shared mental space you can invite anyone into, regardless of your differences. People with no common language can play Go together. You can play a relaxing and fun game of Settlers with your mortal business enemy. And they are great for parties too!

So, without further ado, here are some of the great games I've tried out and played with my friends and family over the years. The list is a result of many trials and misses while choosing "the perfect vacation game," which needs to be portable, durable, and yet easy enough on children and kindly strangers with no previous experience with board games. Enjoy!


1. Settlers of Catan (Portable)

Settlers of Catan became an instant worldwide classic when first published in 1995. It is a very smartly designed game for up to four players competing on who is going to settle an uninhabited island first.

The outstanding qualities of the game are its replayability since it is played on a modular board which changes every time you play and almost total lack of aggression between players in any form. Winning is accomplished by smart use of the five resources and clever trading with other players. It is an ultimate construction and trading game. While you can still choose to play somewhat dirty, there is no in-game mechanic pushing you to do so. Settlers of Catan quickly replaced Monopoly as the family game of choice at my gaming table.

The only negative with the original Settlers is that the box and the board are unnecessarily bulky, especially for such a relatively simple game. Luckily, there is a very handsome travel version available with pegged game pieces, which is totally shake-and-shock proof. You can play it anywhere, on a plane, in a car, at the cafe, and even on a windy beach. You won't be able to use any of the original game's numerous expansions, but this is such a small price to pay for such an ultimately portable yet universally fun family game.


2. Monopoly Deal

This was a big surprise for me and my family. Since I'm something of a game collector, I couldn't resist buying Monopoly Deal when I saw it on sale.

I admit I didn't expect much. Frankly, I loathe Monopoly. I think, and many board game geeks agree, that Monopoly is one of the worst, most boring games ever. Its continuing popularity is turning away many potential board game enthusiasts from the hobby by the dreadful first impression this blight casts on the whole industry.

But I digress. I bought the game because it was cheap and I'm a collector and... The game is great! It is a card game using all the familiar elements from Monopoly except the board and dice!

The mechanics are a bit different from Monopoly the board game and they might require some getting used to. The goal is to collect three building sets of the same color and you accomplish this by a combination of hard work, luck, smart business decisions, and outright theft.

This is the most kid-friendly game of all those listed on this page, but it's interesting and complex enough for adults to play and enjoy as well. My 7-year-old daughter absolutely loves it and even prefers it to The Great Dalmuti which superficially has much simpler rules. It's a great fast 'n' fun family game in all respects.


3. The Great Dalmuti

This one was also a bit of a surprise, I must say! It is designed by the great Richard Garfield of "Magic the Gathering" fame, but it's actually a reworking of an ancient card game called "A**hole," amongst its many names...

So you can imagine how amazingly complex and sophisticated it is.

Anyway, The Great Dalmuti is a surprisingly fun and simple-to-learn card game which is ideally suited for larger groups of people. The fun begins at 5+ players but the game can easily accommodate up to ten participants! It is a game of medieval hierarchy and peasant bashing, of taxation, envy, betrayal and sheer fun! The rules are amazingly simple and involve a lot of seat-changing as well as wearing funny hats and behaving like an a**hole, hence the original name.

It is also an ideal "late night game" meaning that you can easily foist it on adults who maybe had a beer or two or younger kids who only need to be able to count to 12 to play. It can be a real life-saver when the party suddenly grows beyond the capacities of your current game. The Great Dalmuti always saves the day... or evening.

I cannot give enough praise for this game. Last summer my family and friends wore down a brand new deck in less than a month... and those are real quality plastic playing cards! Its only downside is that it does require at least five players to be really fun, so I usually take it as a second, backup game wherever I go.


4. Citadels

The sheer devious evil of this game is mind-boggling. It's a French game. Bear with me. It's a FRENCH game. What does this mean? When Euro games hit the unsuspecting world in the late 90s, the gaming population was thrilled by the beautiful elegance of new German classics such as Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne. However, due to certain, ahem, historical experiences german games always tended to center around cooperation, pacifism and happily building stuff... together. No nasty violence, or in fact any violence at all, was allowed.

Enter Citadels... It's a FRENCH game, ok? It combines the elegance and simplicity of the best German game design with back-stabbing exuberance of proper romper-stomper cutthroat classics like Risk or Monopoly. Simply wonderful!

While its central theme is building a perfect medieval city in order to please your king, the most appealing mechanic is that at every turn you secretly choose which role you play—from idealistic and creative Architect all the way down to the dastardly Thief and even Assassin who can temporarily kick another player from the game.

It's a beautifully illustrated fast-playing card game which can fit into your pocket and easily accommodate two to seven unsuspecting players.


5. Mancala

This is very probably the most ancient board game in the world, and that is no joke. In fact, I'd say that Mancala is the one game I WOULDN'T take on a desert island with me because I can easily make my own handsome gaming set with a patch of soft ground and some beach pebbles.

Nevertheless, a handsome portable folding board can fit snugly in your pocket and is ever ready to be whipped out at curious strangers or rebellious family members in need of some discipline. "You're playing smart I see, but can you walk the walk? Um..." It's a perfect game for quick resolutions of family disputes—and you can play it almost anywhere.


6. Magnetic Go Board

I don't consider my Go board to be a game but a "board game system," a wood and stone Playstation.

You can use Go board for a variety of fun games, apart from the great Go itself. For example, you can play Go-moku, a five-in-a-row children's game similar to naughts and crosses or Atari Go, simplified quick-playing Go, great for kids and learning the proper game itself. You can also play solitaire and try out various combinations in The Game of Life or just use it as a nice decorative interactive toy.

It's great fun just playing with the pieces and trying to invent your own game which you can test with your friends and family. And just like Mancala, it's a perfect game for resolving family disputes. A quick game of five-in-a-row can be used to make a decision on a disputed issue. It's an immortal game that will never grow old and a worthy addition to any game collection or traveling backpack.

While the Baroque rules of chess could only have been created by humans, the rules of go are so elegant, organic, and rigorously logical that if intelligent life forms exist elsewhere in the universe, they almost certainly play Go."

— Edward Lasker


Philip duBarry on March 13, 2013:

I actually have designed a game called Family Vacation! It's on Kickstarter right now:

Not the best for playing in the car, but great fun when you stop!

teriyaki (author) from Croatia on November 12, 2011:

Thnx for the suggestion buffmeister! I'll check it out and if it's worthy it might end up here!

buffmeister on November 12, 2011:

How about 'Franks Zoo'? Portable (cardgame), easy to learn, quick playing, doesn't need much table space and it will appeal to all ages.

teriyaki (author) from Croatia on November 05, 2011:

Thanx for the feedback! I hope I'll find the time to playtest a few more games so I can add them to the list.

Nicole on October 31, 2011:

Good old fashioned board games are so good for the mind!

itsmonkeyboy from London, UK on October 27, 2011:

Great hub! Some great games too, most of which I haven't heard of but I'm going to have to look some of them up. Our boy loves board games but we get a little bored playing the same ones all the time so I'm definitely going to check them out, especially with birthdays and Xmas coming up. Thank you so much for sharing.

teriyaki (author) from Croatia on October 27, 2011:

Thanks for the feedback Stacie! I hope to add more games to the list once they go through my rigorous "backpack, beach and barbecue" testing process. If you have any personal favorite vacation games I'll be more than happy to look into them!

Stacie L on October 27, 2011:

I like board games myself and wrote about it. Families need to socialize and games do help. I like the selection of games you reviewed. I 'll have to investigate them more.