7 best board games to help children think big

Like sneaking veggies into dessert, these board games teach STEM, strategy, and executive functions through the joys of play.

  • Many popular board games offer little more than colorful distractions, lacking both thoughtful design or quality learning principles.
  • However, the recent board game renaissance has resulted in a host of new games that teach children a range of hard and soft skills through play.
  • We look at some of the best new board games and offer tips to find even more.

Monopoly is the worst. No, we're not talking protracted game sessions or sore losers tossing the board across the room like a vengeful titan. We're talking game design.

Thing is, Monopoly asks little thought from its players. They roll the dice, move the appropriate number of spaces, and whether that move helps or hinders their game is ultimately a matter of luck. The only true strategy is to trick, exploit, or intimidate fellow players into making deals against their best interests. (We said it was bad game design, not that it wasn't true to metropolitan real estate milieu.)

Nor does Monopoly stand alone. Many classic board games fail to engage children beyond bright colors and mechanical play. Trouble, Mouse Trap, and The Game of Life require little of players beyond letting the pips to divine success or failure—what game enthusiasts call "roll your dice, move your mice."

Parents looking for something more in their children's entertainment are in luck. We're currently living through a board game renaissance. New games come out yearly that help children develop skills in STEM, strategy, and executive functions. Less about luck and more about engaging with core mechanics, these games challenge children to plan their moves around probability, cause and effect, and reading other players.

Two quick notes on our thought process. First, to keep this family friendly, every game here can be played with at least four players. This means otherwise excellent board games like Go and Chess will be absent. The games also need to be playable by the average 10-year-old. Sorry, Twilight Imperium. We love you, but your table-top spread is too intimidating for this list.


Settlers of Catan

Settlers of Catan is Monopoly done right. The game tasks players with settling the island of Catan by securing the resources to build roads and settlements. Children must plan around the probability that they can extract the resources necessary to meet their rural-planning goals. If they can't extract a resource, they'll need to trade with others in nonzero-sum deals. Unlike Monopoly, Settlers' mechanics prevent a single Uncle Pennybags from hording everything for himself.

Yet, Settlers' best quality is its infinite replayability. The game's board features hexagonal tiles that can be rearranged to keep the experience fresh, and its many expansions add new gameplay elements. This requires children to master the the game's mechanics, not its exploits.

Settlers of Catan by Kosmos/Catan Studio. Designed by Klaus Teuber. 3-4 players (standard game). Winner of Spiel des Jahres Game of the Year (1995). (Photo: Catan Studio)

"[Settlers is] teaching Americans that board games don't have to be either predictable fluff aimed at kids or competitive, hyperintellectual pastimes for eggheads," wrote Wired magazine. "Through the complex, artful dance of algorithms and probabilities lurking at its core, Settlers manages to be effortlessly fun, intuitively enjoyable, and still intellectually rewarding."

Parents of younger children should consider Catan Junior. This reimagining reduces the complexity of trading and building, while maintaining the core principles. It even includes the one thing the other games on this list lack: a ghost pirate.


Evolution


In Evolution, players shepherd an entire species through its evolutionary history in the hopes of staving off extinction. To do so, children will need to evolve their species traits to ecological limitations while outmaneuvering their opponents' ever-adapting beasties.

The game introduces children to biological concepts, such as adaptations and evolutionary arms race, with an airy excitement that's certainly lighter than a school textbook.

Evolution by North Star Games. Designed by Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitry Knorre, and Sergey Machin. 2-6 players (standard game). (Photo: North Star Games)

"Evolution features sophisticated biology. Traits can be put together in a dizzying array of combinations, so each game can be very different. The theme of evolution is not just tacked on: it drives play," writes Stuart West, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Oxford, for Nature.

Like Settlers, younger siblings can enjoy a toned-down version of the game, Evolution: the Beginning.


Kingdomino

Don your crown! In Kingdomino, children play as royalty trying to carve out the most valuable kingdom in all the land. Drawing dominos featuring differing landscape types, they'll have to construct their kingdoms one piece at a time.

Simple enough, but the game requires foresight and executive planning to succeed. Players who pick the least valuable property this round will have first dibs the next. And with only a 5x5 grid to work in, children will need to learn spatial organization skills to know which land type to invest in.

Add to that a multiplication-based scoring system reinforcing mathematics, and you've got some quality learning for all knee-high kings and queens.

Kingdomino by Blue Orange Games. Designed by Bruno Cathala. 2-4 players (standard game). Winner of Spiel des Jahres Game of the Year (2017). (Photo: Kevin Damske/Wikimedia)


Dragonwood

This one's for the younger kiddos. Dragonwood tasks players with venturing into the titular forest to fight vicious, yet cartoon-y, monsters. The game centers on collecting cards in runs, pairs, or color combinations that allow players to attack. The more enemies they defeat, the higher their score.

Dragonwood has a fair amount of luck involved, as kids never know what they'll draw. Yet, this mechanic in turn teaches children to adapt their strategy based on the resources available.

It further combines probability and risk-reward with decision making. A child may want to tackle that dragon before another player gets the chance, but if they wait to draw another card, they may be able to attack with an additional die, increasing the chances of success. Decisions, decisions.


Dragonwood Promo Trailer www.youtube.com


7 Wonders

And now something for the older crowd. 7 Wonders puts players in charge of an ancient kingdom currently constructing one of the Ancient Wonders of the World. They'll have to manage their kingdoms' armies, trade, natural resources, and civic institutions, while checking the clout of those dastardly civilizations in the offing.

What's great about 7 Wonders is that it offers many pathways to victory. A kingdom can dominate through its trade, scientific advancement, civil development, and military conquest. Since players take turns drawing from a shared pool of cards, kids must consider how their choices not only affect their kingdom, but their opponents'. As a bonus, it introduces children to some of history's most fascinating civilizations.

7 Wonders by Repos Production. Designed by Antoine Bauza. 2-7 players (standard game). Winner of the Spiel des Jahres connoisseurs' award (2011). (Photo: Schezar/Flickr)


Century: Golem Edition

If your rascals ever wanted to create giant golems to do their chores, then here's their game. In Century: Golem Edition, players embody a caravan leader who must trade for magic crystals to create epic golems. Each one nets victory points, and whoever has the most impressive gaggle of golems wins.

The game features hand-building mechanics, meaning children will need to collect cards that synergize well. The key to success is to craft a hand that allows for quick acquisition or transmutation of crystals. Without careful planning and an understanding of how cards play in sequence, another player may snag that much coveted golem.

Century: Golem Edition by Plan B Games. Designed by Emerson Matsuuchi. 2-5 players. (Photo: Plan B Games)


Photosynthesis

Arguably the most eye-catching game on this list, Photosynthesis is all about planting trees. Using sunlight as a resource, players must plot a forest to prevent their opponents from rooting in on their territory. The more of the forest that belongs to their species of tree, the higher their score. But to succeed, children will need to develop spatial organization skills and an understanding of how members of an ecology affect one another.

Like Evolution, this game is about introducing children to science with fun, colorful presentation. Children become horticulturists and discover botanical concepts like, well, photosynthesis with playful mechanics.


Photosynthesis Board Game

What board game to play next?

These seven board games will get your family's collection started, but as we said, we're living through a table-top renaissance. Many great games could have found a home on this list: Azul, Dominion, Carcassonne, Splendor, and Ticket to Ride to name a few. And we could have added even more by considering different skills, such as the jazzy creativity of Dixit or the jolly cooperation of Forbidden Desert, or looking at a wider age range.

But with new games coming out every year, many of them excellently designed, the contemporary board game scene can be as unnerving as it is promising. The paradox of choice tells us too many options can foster anxiety, and resplendent box art looks nice on a shelf but tells you nothing about the game inside.

To help, here are a couple tips for finding the best board game for your family:

Look to the awards. In the board game world, the Spiel des Jahres holds all the prestige of an Academy Award (sans the needless self-importance). Some of the best board games have claimed the award, among them Kingdomino and Settlers of Catan. Another one to research is the Mensa Select. Presented by Mensa Mind Games, this award goes to games with designs that are both creative and mentally challenging.

Try before you buy. With the recent increase in board game sales, community toy, hobby, and comic book stores house more board games than ever before. These stores often feature demonstration events or house store copies you can play. Some library chains have started to diversify their board game collections, too.

Visit BoardGameGeek. BoardGameGeek is an online database and forum. It offers gameplay information, age rankings, and complexity ratings. You can also find reviews written by parents and game enthusiasts. These reviews will often feature in-depth discussions of gameplay and mechanics, which can help you determine if a game is right for your family.

With these tips, you can find the best board game for your family, one that will hopefully become a new classic.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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