Updated: May 21, 2020
Grandparent, parent, teen, or child, these 5 games will get all of your neurons firing. Trick your kids into doing something educational without them even realizing it...
I'd like to preface with: No board game in and of itself is highly educational unless played with effort and the desire to strategize. These 5 games in particular have the capacity to be the most mentally stimulating of them all if you play them using some of the strategies I have laid out. They can develop skills like organization, critical thinking, problem solving and attention to detail all while having fun. Share them with your family before playing if you want a challenge, or don't and see if your kids can come up with them on their own.
Skills: Organization, attention to detail, deductive reasoning
Let's start with my all time favorite: CLUE. I loved this game when I was kid and I still do today. Overview:
"If you are a detective, or a real mystery solver at heart, Clue is the board game for you. Players wander around the Clue game board mansion trying to solve the mystery of who was killed, by which weapon, and in what room. Clue cards are given to each player but this is still not enough to solve the mystery."
If anyone has ever played clue and not been that into it, YOU WERE PLAYING WRONG. There is SO much more to clue than making thoughtless guesses when your turn comes. If you want to really play Clue the way it was meant to be played, use these 2 strategies:
#1.Never play without fully utilizing the game sheet list it provides. Divide each row of items/rooms/people into enough columns to match the player count. Now you can track more information and narrow down your list with every players' turn.
#2. Every time someone asks a player if it was "(person) in the (room) with the (weapon)" and that player responds by having none of those cards, you should immediately cross those 3 things out for that individual player.
By using those 2 strategies, I never lost a game of Clue in my life until I met my future husband. He's someone who gets even more into these games than I do and went one step further with his data collection, bringing us to a third strategy:
#3. If a player does have one of the 3 things they asked for, make some small mark in that person's column for each of those three things indicating that they might have it (because we obviously don't know which of the 3 they showed). As the game continues, you will eventually be able to narrow down which of the 3 it was after collecting more information.
Master these 3 strategies, share them with no one, and you will be the reining Clue champ of your household. Clue also comes in so many fun variations such as Star Wars, Game of Thrones, The Office, Harry Potter, and so many more.
Skills: Anticipatory thinking, teamwork, problem solving
Pandemic got bumped up to #2 on my list for relativity. If we can't escape the real pandemic in our lives, why not escape an imaginary one? Overview:
Pandemic is a cooperative game where 2-4 players race against the clock and a four unique diseases, spreading across the globe, threatening to go from epidemic to full-blown pandemic. No less than the fate of the word is at stake as players' team of scientists, medics, dispatchers and various other specialists play a game of virulent whack-a-mole to prevent the fall of humanity. As it is a cooperative game, either everyone wins by curing all the diseases or everyone loses to a global catastrophe.
#1: Ignore curing for the first few rounds and instead concentrate on setting up teleporters. Depending on the roles you have, setting up a network of teleportations stations can be vital for the win.
#2: Don't spend cards recklessly, but don't hesitate either. Pandemics don't go easy on hoarders. Strategies on when to spend and when to save will become more obvious once you start playing. Find that happy medium.
#3: ALWAYS prevent outbreaks early in the game. Early outbreaks are so much worse than late outbreaks because there's a greater chance of having another outbreak when there is an epidemic on a city that has an outbreak cube.
#4: Prioritize cities by the number of connections. An outbreak in a city with four connections is twice as bad as an outbreak in a city with two connections.
Is it just me or is all of this sounding way too real?
Skills: Resource allocation, negotiation, probabilities
This strategy game has made it to the top of many lists because it is simply the best of the best. There are tons of expansions and variations so it never gets old. Overview:
Players take on the roles of settlers, each attempting to build and develop holdings while trading and acquiring resources. Players gain points as their settlements grow; the first to reach a set number of points, typically 10, wins.
Catan is one of those games where there are many different strategies that can all be highly effective. The only strategy that doesn't work here is not having one at all. I'm not going to tell you which specific strategy to go with because quite frankly, I use a different one every time, but here are some general strategies every player should consider within their own larger strategy:
#1: Get one of everything. You're going to need all of wood, brick, wheat, sheep, and ore, so why not make sure you have them all at the start? Place your first settlement so you get 3 different resources, and pick up the final 2 with your last placement.
#2: Balance resources. Decide what route you are trying to go early on, and make sure you balance your resources accordingly. Paired resources like 9 of wood and 9 of brick will give you an instant road every time a 9 is rolled, and this sort of synergy is powerful.
#3: Prioritize ore and wheat. There are highly competitive strategies that need very little brick and wood. But no strategies can do without ore and wheat, so if you don't start with them, you'd better have a plan of how to get them.
Skills: Vocabulary, critical thinking, organization
This is the game that may make your kids hesitate before agreeing to play since it clearly has an educational component, but if you can get them to cave once, they will realize why it's stood the test of time to become what I consider the most classic strategy game of them all. No overview necessary. Strategies:
#1: The rules say that whichever player has a letter closest to "A" goes first, I say whoever can make the longest word starts. Having a spread out board with more places to build from will make for a better game.
#2: It is better to make a 3-letter word with a bonus space than a 6-letter word without, ESPECIALLY that always-desired "triple word score" bonus. Leave your pride to look like the most literate genius at the door and just jump on those point boosters.
#3: NEVER hoard letters for a word that you can almost make if you pick up that one other letter... IT NEVER WORKS. This will leave you making 3 to 5 point turns until you finally have to just give up anyways (I learned this the hard way, I know it's tempting)
#4: Embrace the Z's, Q's, and X's, they may be scary, but they are your golden ticket. Play these letters on those bonus spaces as often as humanly possible. Not to brag, but I once scored 82 points on "graze" by placing the "z" on a triple letter score space with another letter on a double word score space. Since the rules let you count the triple letter score within the double word, my "z" itself got me 60 points.
Skills: Deductive reasoning, logic, concentration
Last but not least, this 2-player brain trip may be the most mentally exhausting of them all, depending on how much effort your are willing to give and how lucky your first guess is. Overview:
Mastermind is a game that requires a player to use logic and deductive reasoning skills to determine, through trial, error, and some luck, the sequence of colored pegs their opponent has secretly placed.
The best strategies for this game would make no sense explained in words so you will have to just take my word, play, and discover them for yourselves. My only advice: if you are not a patient person, I recommend not keeping track how many turns it took you and your partner to guess each other's sequence. Why? Let's just say I once took 28 minutes to make my 4th guess because it was my last chance to get the sequence right in less turns than my partner and I I didn't want to lose. I may have overthought that one a little.