7 (more) board games to help kids think big

We catalogue seven more board games to teach children science, problem-solving, and even foster their creativity.

7 (more) board games to help kids think big
  • The number of board games being released each year is unprecedented.
  • Among the deluge of new and interesting titles, many can help develop life-critical skills, such as creativity, problem solving, and lateral thinking.
  • We look at seven more board games that help teach children to think big.

We are living in a board game renaissance. Where once families had a paltry selection of dice rollers to choose from, today the shelves of toy stores and hobby shops buckle under the weight of fun and absorbing board games. Tucked among those variegated boxes are fantastic learning experiences that educate and entertain children in equal measure.

Last time, we cataloged seven of the best board games to teach children STEM, strategy, and executive functions. But that barely scratched the surface, so we're back with seven more.

The rules are the same. Every game must support a family-friendly four players, so classics like Go and Chess will be truant again despite their cognitive-expanding capabilities. Also, a ten-year-old should be able to comprehend the game's mechanics after a game or two, meaning stat-laden behemoths like Scythe and Terraforming Mars—though wonderful in their own right—will need to find their dues on another list.

Ticket to Ride

In Ticket to Ride, players transform into 19th-century tycoons bidding to monopolize the burgeoning railroad industry. They collect cards of various colors and use them to purchase tracks. Connecting these tracks with major railway hubs, they create routes crisscrossing the continental United States. Longer routes earn more points, with additional points awarded to players who complete special Destination routes.

Though easy to learn, the game hides enough strategic depth to earn it the 2004 Spiel des Jahres. Players must use spatial reasoning to plan their routes, understand the risk-reward between collecting more cards versus claiming routes, and adapt their strategies to an ever-changing board.

The game also introduces children to basic U.S. geography, helping them understand the relationship between major U.S. cities. Though, the map isn't 100 percent accurate (as any citizen of Duluth, Minnesota, will tell you). Other versions of the game sport maps for Asia, Europe, the Nordic Countries, and the United Kingdom.


Many board games recognize only cold calculations and cutthroat planning. Dixit, the 2010 Spiel des Jahres winner, takes a different tack by rewarding players for their creativity and a strong theory of mind.

Each round, one player becomes the storyteller. This player plays a card from their hand face down and offers a clue to describe it. The other players then place cards they think match the clue. After a good shuffle, the cards are revealed, and everyone tries to figure out which card was the storyteller's.

Here's the trick: To maximize points, the storyteller wants only some players to guess the correct card. If everyone guesses correctly, they lose the round.

To galvanize players' imaginations, Dixit's cards depict fantastical scenes in a surrealist art style. Think a boy on a ladder fashioning clouds into animals, biomes collected in raindrops, or a cenotaph imprinted with a blood-red snake. And because everyone's creativity is unique, each grouping of friends and family will result in wildly different experiences.


Labyrinth asks players to navigate a maze to find a treasure buried in its depths. Simple enough, except the maze morphs at the will and whim of your competitors.

Players take turns sliding an extra piece into the rows and columns of the maze, altering the passageways available to the players. The extra tile then passes to the next player, who alters the maze further. The first player to retrieve all their treasures and get out wins.

A pure puzzle-solving game, Labyrinth presents players with spatial and strategic challenges. Do they use their turn to block an opponent's path or try to shift the wall blocking their own? Though each move is simple, it's the chain of effect that makes the game challenging and fun.

Forbidden Desert

Where most games require players to defeat each other to claim victory, Forbidden Desert asks them to work together against the game itself.

Players must discover a legendary flying machine in the titular desert. Each one embodies a role that grants them a special skill, and as a team, they must explore the desert to discover the far-flung pieces of the flying machine.

To succeed, everyone must coordinate their actions, efforts, and equipment before they die of thirst or the shifting desert sands bury them forever. And should one player fail, everybody loses.

A Mensa Select Winner, Forbidden Desert is one of the best games out there to develop children's cooperative and team-building skills. Its predecessor, Forbidden Island, is worth a look, too.


The board game world overflows with fantasy and science fiction settings that cast players as the conquerors of eccentric lands. Wingspan takes place in a wildlife preserve for birds. Not even thunderbirds or phoenixes, but run-of-the-mill blue jays and sparrows. And it is pure joy.

Players cultivate a wildlife preserve to attract and support different bird species. Through the game's card-drafting and hand-management mechanics, they'll have to keep the species fed and aid in their procreation. In turn, the birds affect the habitat in combinations that assist the player's efforts.

Players learn strategy, resource management, and gain an understanding of ecological conservation, but the game's real educational draw is as an introduction to birds. The game includes 170 unique North American species cards, each beautifully illustrated to look painted by John James Audubon himself.


The world of cells is a weird and bewildering place. It doesn't help that the cellular structures and functions come wrapped in hazy terminology. Enter Cytosis, a worker placement game that takes place inside the human cell.

Players place workers on organelles to tap into the cell's biological processes. These processes allow players to amass enzymes, hormones, and receptors, which are in turn converted into health points. The healthiest player wins the game.

Cytosis does a good job of personalizing the cellular life cycle through gameplay. It introduces players to organelles like the Golgi apparatus and endoplasmic reticulum and familiarizes them with cellular resources like ATP and mRNA, as well as the processes that manifest them.

While players won't be able to write a dissertation after a game, they will find the concepts far less intimidating. And it's also a solidly fun worker placement game to boot.


Few games enjoy the pedigree of Dominion. The game won all the awards and honors of 2009—among its golden trove the Spiel des Jahres and a Mensa Select—and for good reason. Through its deck-building mechanics, the game teaches strategy, resource management, problem-solving, lateral thinking, and the principles of cost-effectiveness.

Players become monarchs aiming to expand their kingdoms through territorial claims. To do so, they must deepen their provincial coffers by collecting treasure cards and enhance their economic prowess through kingdom cards. Kingdom cards offer players unique moves that, if properly paired together, can increase a deck's efficiency and purchasing power.

Like Settlers of Catan, Dominion enjoys near infinite replayability as each game can populate the field with a unique combination of kingdom cards. As such, players can't rely on the same tactics to see them to victory. They must instead learn core strategic principles and then adapt to the resources available. They must also learn to balance purchasing power and victory conditions with deck efficiency to seize those beguiling estate, duchy, province cards before others.

What to play next?

These board games will be a welcome addition to any family's Saturday night, but with more excellent games coming out every year, this list is hardly comprehensive.

If you're looking for something new, be sure to research past award winners and visit board game websites like BoardGameGeek. Board games can be expensive, so try to find a local hobby shop that has demonstration events or store copies to try before you buy.

With these tips, it won't be difficult to find a board game that teaches your child something new. As a bonus, it's also a great way to facilitate fun family time.

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Credit: Getty Images
Surprising Science
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COVID and "gain of function" research: should we create monsters to prevent them?

Gain-of-function mutation research may help predict the next pandemic — or, critics argue, cause one.

Credit: Guillermo Legaria via Getty Images

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

"I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

A virus and a firestorm

The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

Just three special traits

Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

"In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

"Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

And, potentially, people.

"This work should never have been done"

The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

"When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

"You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

"Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

"Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

"The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

"Nature will continue to do this"

They were dead on the beaches.

In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

"We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

"If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

"With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

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Credit: Hà Nguyễn via Unsplash
Sex & Relationships
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