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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 the metropolitan real estate milieu.)
Nor does Monopoly stand alone. Many classic board games fail to engage children beyond bright colors and rote play. Trouble, Mouse Trap, and The Game of Life require little of players beyond leaving 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.
In Evolution, players shepherd an entire species through its evolutionary history in the hopes of staving off extinction. To do so, they'll need to evolve the species' traits to meet 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 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.
Don your crown! In Kingdomino, children play as royalty trying to carve out the most valuable kingdom in all the land. Drawing dominoes that feature 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 may 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)
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
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 its many pathways to victory. A kingdom can dominate through trade, scientific advancement, civil development, and military conquest. Since players take turns drawing from a shared pool of cards, they 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 these larger-than-life creatures. 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)
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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"Deepfakes" and "cheap fakes" are becoming strikingly convincing — even ones generated on freely available apps.
- A writer named Magdalene Visaggio recently used FaceApp and Airbrush to generate convincing portraits of early U.S. presidents.
- "Deepfake" technology has improved drastically in recent years, and some countries are already experiencing how it can weaponized for political purposes.
- It's currently unknown whether it'll be possible to develop technology that can quickly and accurately determine whether a given video is real or fake.
After former U.S. President William Henry Harrison delivered his inaugural speech on March 4, 1841, he posed for a daguerreotype, the first widely available photographic technology. It became the first photo taken of a sitting American president.
As for the eight presidents before Harrison, history can see them only through artistic renderings. (The exception is a handful of surviving daguerreotypes of John Quincy Adams, taken after he left office. In his diary, Adams described them as "hideous" and "too true to the original.")
But a recent project offers a glimpse of what early presidents might've looked like if photographed through modern cameras. Using FaceApp and Airbrush, Magdalene Visaggio, author of books such as "Eternity Girl" and "Kim & Kim," generated a collection of convincing portraits of the nation's first presidents, from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant.
Modern Presidents George Washington https://t.co/CURJQB0kap— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611952243.0
What might be surprising is that Visaggio was able to generate the images without a background in graphic design, using freely available tools. She wrote on Twitter:
"A lot of people think I'm a digital artist or whatever, so let me clarify how I work. Everything you see here is done in Faceapp+Airbrush on my phone. On the outside, each takes between 15-30 mins. Washington was a pretty simple one-and-done replacement."
Ulysses S Grant https://t.co/L1IGXLI3Vl— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611959480.0
"Other than that? I am not a visual artist in any sense, just a hobbyist using AI tools see what she can make. I'm actually a professional comics writer."
Did another pass at Lincoln. https://t.co/PdT4QVpMbn— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611973947.0
Of course, Visaggio isn't the first person to create deepfakes (or "cheap fakes") of politicians.
In 2017, many people got their first glimpse of the technology through a video depicting former President Barack Obama warning: "We're entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time." The video quickly reveals itself to be fake, with comedian Jordan Peele speaking for the computer-generated Obama.
While deepfakes haven't yet caused significant chaos in the U.S., incidents in other nations may offer clues of what's to come.
The future of deepfakes
In 2018, Gabon's president Ali Bongo had been out of the country for months receiving medical treatment. After Bongo hadn't been seen in public for months, rumors began swirling about his condition. Some suggested Bongo might even be dead. In response, Bongo's administration released a video that seemed to show the president addressing the nation.
But the video is strange, appearing choppy and blurry in parts. After political opponents declared the video to be a deepfake, Gabon's military attempted an unsuccessful coup. What's striking about the story is that, to this day, experts in the field of deepfakes can't conclusively verify whether the video was real.
The uncertainty and confusion generated by deepfakes poses a "global problem," according to a 2020 report from The Brookings Institution. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense released some of the first tools able to successfully detect deepfake videos. The problem, however, is that deepfake technology keeps improving, meaning forensic approaches may forever be one step behind the most sophisticated forms of deepfakes.
As the 2020 report noted, even if the private sector or governments create technology to identify deepfakes, they will:
"...operate more slowly than the generation of these fakes, allowing false representations to dominate the media landscape for days or even weeks. "A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on," warns David Doermann, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at the University of Buffalo. And if defensive methods yield results short of certainty, as many will, technology companies will be hesitant to label the likely misrepresentations as fakes."
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.
- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
- They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
- Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Ancient mining areas below Paris for limestone (red) and gypsum (green).Credit: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) / Public domain
"If you're brave enough to try, you might be able to catch a train from UnLondon to Parisn't, or No York, or Helsunki, or Lost Angeles, or Sans Francisco, or Hong Gone, or Romeless."
China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun is set in an eerie mirror version of London. In it, he hints that other cities have similar doubles. On the list that he offhandedly rattles off, Paris stands out. Because the City of Light really does have a twisted sister. Below Paris Overground is Paris Underground, the City of Darkness.
Most people will have heard of the Catacombs of Paris: subterranean charnel houses for the bones of around six million dead Parisians. They are one of the French capital's most famous tourist attractions – and undoubtedly its grisliest.
But they constitute only a small fragment of what the locals themselves call les carrières de Paris ("the mines of Paris"), a collection of tunnels and galleries up to 300 km (185 miles) long, most of which are off-limits to the public, yet eagerly explored by so-called cataphiles.
The Grand Réseau Sud ("Great Southern Network") takes up around 200 km beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements (administrative districts), all south of the river Seine. Smaller networks run beneath the 12th, 13th, and 16th arrondissements. How did they get there?
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
It all starts with geology. Sediments left behind by ancient seas created large deposits of limestone in the south of the city, mostly south of the Seine; and gypsum in the north, particularly in the hills of Montmartre and Ménilmontant. Highly sought after as building materials, both have been mined since Roman times.
The limestone is also known as Lutetian limestone (Lutetia is the Latin name for ancient Paris) or simply "Paris stone." It has been used for many famous Paris landmarks, including the Louvre and the grand buildings erected during Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale remodelling of the city in the mid-19th century. The stone's warm, yellowish color provides visual unity and a bright elegance to the city.
The fine-powdered gypsum of northern Paris, used for making quick-setting plaster, was so famed for its quality that "plaster of Paris" is still used as a term of distinction. However, as gypsum is very soluble in water, the underground cavities left by its extraction were extremely vulnerable to collapse.
Like living on top of a rotting tooth: subsidence starts far below the surface, but it can destroy your house.Credit : Delavanne Avocats
In previous centuries, a road would occasionally open up to swallow a chariot, or even a whole house would disappear down a sinkhole. In 1778, a catastrophic subsidence in Ménilmontant killed seven. That's why the Montmartre gypsum quarries were dynamited rather than just left as they were. The remaining gypsum caves were to be filled up with concrete.
The official body governing Paris down below is the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), founded in the late 1770s by King Louis XVI. The IGC was tasked with mapping and, where needed, propping up the current and ancient (and sometimes forgotten) mining corridors and galleries hiding beneath Paris.
A delightful hiding place
Also around that time, the dead of Paris were getting in the way of the living. At the end of the 18th century, their final destination consisted of about 200 small cemeteries, scattered throughout the city — all bursting at the seams, so to speak. There was no room to bury the newly dead, and the previously departed were fouling up both the water and air around their respective churchyards.
Something radical had to happen. And it did. From 1785 until 1814, the smaller cemeteries were emptied of their bones, which were transported with full funerary pomp to their final resting place in the ancient limestone quarries at Tombe-Issoire. Three large and modern cemeteries were opened to receive the remains of subsequent generations of Parisians: Montparnasse, Père-Lachaise, and Passy.
The six million dead Parisians in the Catacombs, from all corners of the capital and across many centuries, together form the world's largest necropolis — their now anonymized skulls and bones methodically stacked, occasionally into whimsical patterns. The Catacombs are fashioned into a memorial to the brevity of life. The message above the entrance reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort. ("Halt! This is the empire of Death.")
That has not stopped the Catacombs, accessible via a side door to a classicist building on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, making just about every Top 20 list of things to see in Paris.
An underground economy
However, while the Catacombs certainly are the most famous part of the centuries-old network beneath Paris, and in non-pandemic times draw thousands of tourists each day, they constitute just 1.7 km (1 mile) of the 300-km (185-mile) tunneling total.
Subterranean Paris wasn't just used for mining and storing dead people. In the 17th century, Carthusian monks converted the ancient quarries under their monastery into distilleries for the green or yellow liqueur that still carries their name, chartreuse.
Because the mines generally keep a constant cool temperature of around 15° C (60° F), they were also ideal for brewing beer, as happened on a large scale from the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century. Several caves were dug especially for establishing breweries, and not just because of the ambient temperature: going underground allowed brewers to remain close to their customers without having to pay a premium for real estate up top.
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
At the end of the 19th century, the underground breweries of the 14th arrondissement alone produced more than a million hectoliters (22 million gallons) per year. One of the most famous of Paris' underground breweries, Dumesnil, stayed in operation until the late 1960s.
In that decade, the network of corridors and galleries south of the Seine, long since abandoned by miners, became the unofficial playground for the young people of Paris. They explored the fantastical world beneath their feet, in some cases via entry points located in their very schools. Fascinated, these cataphiles ("catacomb lovers") read up on old books, explored the subterranean labyrinth, and drew up schematics that were passed around among fellow initiates as reverently as treasure maps.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Paris-beneath-their-feet became "a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface."
Some larger caves turned into notorious party zones: a 7-meter-tall gallery below the Val-de-Grâce hospital is widely known as "Salle Z." Over the last few decades, various other locations in subterranean Paris have hosted jazz and rock concerts and rave parties — like no other city, Paris really has an "underground music scene."
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
Cataphiles vs. cataphobes
With popularity came increased reports of nuisance and crime — the tunnels provided easy access to telephone cables, which were stolen for the resale value of their copper.
The general public's "discovery" of the underground network led the city of Paris to officially interdict all access by non-authorized persons. That decree dates back to 1955, but the "underground police" have an understanding with seasoned cataphiles. Their main targets are so-called tourists, who by their lack of knowledge expose themselves to risk of injuries or worse, and degrade their surroundings, often leaving loads of litter in their wake.
The understanding does not extend to the IGC. Unlike in the 19th century, when weak cavities were shored up by purpose-built pillars, the policy now is to inject concrete to fill up endangered spaces — thus progressively blocking off parts of the network. That procedure has also been used to separate the Catacombs to prevent "infiltration" of the site by cataphiles.
Many subterranean streets have their own names, signs and all. This is the Rue des Bourguignons (Street of the Burgundians) below the Champs des Capucins (Capuchin Field), neither of which exists on the surface.Credit: Jean-François Gornet via Wikimedia and licensed under
The cataphiles, however, are fighting back. In a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, they are reopening blocked passages and creating chatières ("cat flaps") through which they can squeeze into chambers no longer accessible via other underground corridors.
Catacomb climate control
Alone against the unstoppable tide of concrete, the amateurs of Underground Paris would be helpless. But the fight against climate change may turn the subterranean labyrinths from a liability into an asset — and the City of Paris into an ally.
The UN's 2015 Climate Plan — concluded in Paris, by the way — requires the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050. And Paris itself wants to be Europe's greenest city by 2030. More sustainable climate control of our living spaces would be a great help toward both targets. A lot of energy is spent heating houses in winter and cooling them in summer.
This is where the constant temperature of the Parisian tunnels comes in. It's not just good for brewing beer; it's a source of geothermal energy, says Fieldwork, an architectural firm based in Paris. It can be used to temper temperatures, helping to cool houses in summer and warming them in winter.
One catch for the cataphiles: it also works when the underground cavities are filled up with concrete. So perhaps one day, Paris Underground, fully filled up with concrete, will completely fall off the map, reducing the city's formerly real doppelgänger into an air conditioning unit.
Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
Strange Maps #1083
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
Meconium contains a wealth of information.
- A new study finds that the contents of an infants' first stool, known as meconium, can predict if they'll develop allergies with a high degree of accuracy.
- A metabolically diverse meconium, which indicates the initial food source for the gut microbiota, is associated with fewer allergies.
- The research hints at possible early interventions to prevent or treat allergies just after birth.
The prevalence of allergies arising in childhood has increased over the last 50 years, with 30 percent of the human population now having some kind of atopic disease such as eczema, food allergies, or asthma. The cause of this increase is still subject to debate, though it has been associated with a number of factors, including changes to the gut microbiomes of infants.
A new study by Canadian researchers published in Cell Reports Medicine may shed further light on how these allergies develop in children by examining the contents of their first diaper.
The things you do for science
The research team examined the first stool of 100 infants from the CHILD Cohort Study. The first stool of an infant is a thick, green, horrid-looking substance called meconium. It consists of various things that the infant ingests during the second half of gestation. Additionally, it provides not only a snapshot of what the infant was exposed to during that time, but it also reveals what the food sources will be for the initial gut bacteria that colonize the baby's digestive tract.
The content of the meconium was examined and found to contain such varied elements as amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, and myriad other substances.
A graph of the comparative, summed abundance of different elements in a metabolic pathway after scaling to median abundance of each metabolite. The blue figures are those children without atopy, the yellow ones show the data for those with an atopic condition. Petersen et al.
The authors fed this information into an algorithm that used this data, along with the identities of the bacteria present as well as the baby's overall health, to predict which infants would go on to develop allergies within one year. The algorithm got it right 76 percent of the time.
A way to prevent childhood allergies?
Infants whose meconium had a less diverse metabolic niche the initial microbes to settle in the gut were at the highest risk of developing allergies a year later. Many of these elements were associated with the presence or absence of different bacterial groups in the digestive system of the child, which play an increasingly appreciated role in our overall health and development. The findings were summarized by senior co-author Dr. Brett Finlay:
"Our analysis revealed that newborns who developed allergic sensitization by one year of age had significantly less 'rich' meconium at birth, compared to those who didn't develop allergic sensitization."
The findings could be used to help understand how allergies form and even how to prevent them. Co-author Dr. Stuart Turvey commented on this possibility:
"We know that children with allergies are at the highest risk of also developing asthma. Now we have an opportunity to identify at-risk infants who could benefit from early interventions before they even begin to show signs and symptoms of allergies or asthma later in life."
A model for early childhood allergies
Petersen et al.
As shown above, the authors constructed a model of how they believe metabolites and bacterial diversity help prevent allergies. Increased diversity of metabolic products in the meconium encourage the development of "healthy" families of bacteria, like Peptostreptococcaceae, which in turn promote the development of a healthy and diverse gut microbiome. Ultimately, such diversity decreases the likelihood that a child will develop allergies.