Taking the Boredom out of Family Game Night

We’re all about families having fun together, and game night is one of the best ways to do that. But playing the same games over and over can get a little stale. So, in the interests of injecting a little more fun into your family’s game night, here are some great choices that will keep you and yours engaged and laughing.

Battle SheepBattle Sheep (Blue Orange Games)
Simple to learn, fun to play, but a new challenge every time. Players start off with four board tiles (there are a total of 16, so up to four can play), which they take turns laying out until the board is complete. Each tile contains four “pastures.” Then, each player takes his or her herd (a stack of 16 color-matched sheep tokens) and places it on one of the pastures along the edge of the board. The goal is to put your sheep on the most pastures. Move as many of your sheep as you’d like—but you have to leave at least one behind, and you can only move in a straight line. Seems simple enough, but if you’re not paying attention to your opponents and plotting out your own moves a few in advance, some of your flock could get penned in. The first few times you play, you’ll probably be on the defensive—doing whatever you can to keep your flock free. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll go on the offensive and start blocking everyone else. The board tiles and tokens are sturdy and the game is great for building strategic- and abstract thinking skills. For 2-4 players, ages 7 to adult. Retails online for around $21. http://www.blueorangegames.com/

LoonacyLoonacy (Looney Labs)
Loonacy combines elements of Crazy Eights, Uno, and Dominoes to make a fun, fast-paced game. Players start with seven cards, each with two images on it. The goal is to be the first to empty your hand by matching at least one of the images on your cards with one on the cards in the face-up pile(s) on the table. All you need is quick reflexes, a good memory, and a lot of luck. The fewer the number of players, the more discard piles you have (two players have four piles). That adds an element of strategy to the game since there are so many matching options. But as you add players, the number of discard piles decreases (five players have only one pile), which turns the game into a completely crazy free-for-all—something that may frustrate younger players. Takes only 5-10 minutes to play for 2-5 players, ages 8 and up. Retails for about $12.16. http://www.looneylabs.com/

regular show fluxxcartoon network fluxxRegular Show Fluxx and Cartoon Network Fluxx (Looney Labs)
If you’re looking for free-for-alls, this one takes the cake. It starts so peacefully, with each player getting three cards. The rules are simple. Draw one and play one. But here’s where the fun starts. Each card played can change the rules of the game, requiring you to draw more cards, talk in a cartoon voice, play all the cards in your hand;, steal cards from an opponent, and so on. Rules can be combined if they don’t contradict each other (for example, you might have to draw four cards and talk in a cartoon voice). Regular Show Fluxx features characters from the Cartoon Network’s “Regular Show,” while Cartoon Network Fluxx features characters from nine CN shows, including “Powerpuff Girls,” “Eddy,” “Adventure Time,” and “Samurai Jack.” Both are for 2-6 players, ages 8+ and retail for around $16. http://www.looneylabs.com/

Hitting the Road

Despite all the rosy news one hears these days about sinking unemployment numbers and a rising economy, plenty of people are still having financial issues. As a result, a lot of families are taking their vacations a little closer to home. This week, we review a few cool items that will make any family road/camping trip a success.

reese car top carrierReese Explore Car Top Carrier (Reese Brands)
Once you’ve decided where to go, it’s time to start packing up the car. Unfortunately, a lot of us tend to bring way, way too much, which leaves barely enough room in the car for the people. One great solution is this roof-top carrier from Reese. It’s made of lightweight-but-durable nylon that will keep your belongings clean and dry regardless of the weather, and is a lot easier to attach to your car’s side rails or cross bars than many of its competitors. Best of all, it’s expandable (going from 12 to 16 cubic feet of storage), which is a big help if you’re trying to carry awkwardly shaped items. Retails for about $65 at http://www.walmart.com/

dragons adventureDragons Adventure World Explorer (DreamWorks)
Keeping the kids entertained on a long drive can be a challenge. Ideally, you’ll have a mix of tech and no-tech options. When it’s tech’s turn, Dragons Adventure is perfect. It’s inspired by the How to Train Your Dragon movies and set on the Isle of Berk. As you might expect from DreamWorks, it’s beautifully designed and quite interactive. There are quests—light signal beacons, move a sheep from one place to another, but Dragons Adventure has a few twists that make it truly unique. In it-home mode, players (who can be either Hiccup or Astrid) fly around the world, rescuing dragons from evildoers. But the real fun starts on the move. The app uses HERE maps to bring the roads you’re driving on into the game in real time, so players will see familiar landmarks as they fly their dragons. It also info from The Weather Channel to change the weather conditions in the game, and data from Foursquare to determine how many Vikings appear along the route. Another neat feature: If you plug in your starting point and destination before you start, the game will wind down as you reach your destination. Free for Microsoft Windows phones and tablets.

mountainsmith conifer 5+Conifer 5+ (Mountainsmith)
Once you get there, you’ve got to sleep somewhere, right? You can’t do better than the Conifer 5+. To say it’s roomy doesn’t do it justice. The tent itself has 83.5 sq. feet of floor space, lots of interior pockets, and a ceiling height of 6’2”, so there’s plenty of room for two adults, three kids, and a dog or two. There’s also a “porch,” which adds another 30 sq. ft for storing luggage or just hanging out. It’s quick and easy to set up, but best with two people—especially if it’s windy. Directions are printed right on the stuff sack, so they’re a lot hard to lose. Prices range from $285 to $360. http://mountainmith.com/

washdropsWashdrops (Cequent Consumer Products)
After a long road trip, you’re going to want to wash that car. But today, when everyone’s concerned about conserving resources, wasting all that water is a big no-no. So what’s an environmentally savvy parent with a filthy vehicle to do? All you need is one bucket of water and Washdrops . It’s non-abrasive and leaves you with a shiny surface without repeated rinses. It’s completely non-toxic—no solvents, butyl, phosphate, or ammonia—so when you’re done you can use what’s left in the bucket to water your garden. $10.95-$22.00. http://washdrops.com/

Hey, Kiddo, Let’s Get Outa Here

With technology making its way into every aspect of our lives, kids are spending a lot less time playing outside than we did when we where their age. And even when they do play outside, it’s often in a highly structured activity (like soccer, swimming, and most other organized sports) that doesn’t give kids freedom to explore, create, or just have fun. There are alternatives, however, and this week we bring you four of them.

jumparooJumparoo Frog Pogo Stick (Geospace)
Most pogo sticks bounce up and down on a post, which makes it hard for little kids to keep balanced. But the Jumparoo frog pogo stick has a wide, rounded base, which lets your pollywog bounce around to his or her heart’s content, giggling all the way. It’s great for developing coordination and balance, plus it’s a great workout. Oh, and if that isn’t fun enough, the Jumparoo ribbits with every boing. For kids 4 and up who weigh 28-62 pounds (yes, that means you’ll have to stay off of it—but Jumparoo makes adult-sized pogo, if you want to join the fun). $77.50 at Amazon, or at http://www.geospaceplay.com/

flymax footballFly Max Football (Geospace)
Every child—boy or girl—who’s ever picked up a football has dreamed of throwing a deadly accurate 50-yard bomb. But those of us who are not named Manning, Rodgers, Brady, or Kaepernick have had to settle for much, much shorter and not-terribly-accurate passes. But with the Fly Max Football, you and the kids can actually throw on-the-money passes up to 100 yards. The Fly Max looks like a cross between a small football and a hollow rocket ship with fins. It has a dial that you can set to maximize distance for either rightys or leftys. It also makes a cool buzzy-whistly sound as it files. Made for future first-round draft pics 6 and up—and the grownups who do their laundry and drive them to practice. $19.99 at http://www.geospaceplay.com/

top tossTop Toss Pro Lawn Game (Ideal)
Top Toss combines elements from horseshoes, bowling, and other yard games to create a truly unique and fun outdoor activity for the whole family. Your first task is to build the tower, which looks like a short ladder (it’s actually almost four feet high) with a wide base. That’ll take about five minutes. Then, it’s on to the actual game. Players take turns throwing bolo balls (imagine an 8-inch piece of yarn with a soft golf ball attached to each end), trying to get them to wrap around the rungs of the tower. The rungs get smaller as the tower gets taller, so high ones score more than lower ones. Because set-up and tear-down are so easy, Top Toss is a great choice for the backyard, the beach, or even indoors. For two or more players ages 8 and up, Top Toss comes with three bolo balls, all the steel rods and plastic connectors you’ll need to build the tower, bilingual instructions, and a storage bag. $34.99 (or $54.99 for the “pro” version that comes with two towers) at http://poof-slinky.com/product/top-toss/

T-ballMy 1st Sports T-Ball (Poof)
What a great way to introduce your little one to baseball. Set-up takes all of 15 seconds and then it’s home-run derby time (with a subtle lesson in hand-eye coordination). Excellent for outdoor play, but it could work indoors too. The ball and bat are made of foam, so even if your little slugger really smacks one, damage should be minimal. Best for preschoolers (most kids over 5 are ready for the more traditional T) $22.99 at http://poof-slinky.com/

Summer Brain Drain? Not Around Here

Now that summer’s here and the kids are home, parents are looking for ways to keep their little ones’ minds sharp over break. Old standbys like activity books, worksheets, and reading are great at keeping those brains busy. But there are also a lot of fun reading are all important to keep learning locked in, there are fun toys you can add into the mix that kids will enjoy playing–and learning—with.

telly teaching clockTelly the Teaching Time Clock (The Learning Journal International)
This little guy is perfect for kids who are learning to tell time—and yes, that’s important even in an era where clocks with hands seem to be going the way of the ichthyosaurus. Actually, with Telly, you can teach the kids both analog and digital, a feature you rarely find on the same teaching clock. There’s also a “quiz mode,” where Telly asks the child to match the digital time shown on his face by moving the hands on his (literal) face. Bonus: Among his many talents, Telly is a real, working clock, making him a nice addition to a child’s bedroom. Comes with three AA batteries. Retails for $28 on http://www.tlji.com/

magnetic spell and learn boardMagnetic Spell and Learn Board (The Learning Journal International)
This is a great way to teach your kids letters, sounds, and spelling. Some of the magnets have short words and pictures of the words on them. They can then “write” out the spelled words with the magnet letters. This type of hands-on learning is a great way to build phonics, vocabulary, spelling skills, and early reading skills. The board and interlocking magnets make putting words together into sentences or poetry a breeze. And the handy storage compartment makes clean-up easy and minimizes missing pieces. Retails for $20 on http://www.tlji.com

turbo land rocketTurbo Land Rocket (Scientific Explorer)
This toy offers a different type of hands-on experience that’s a lot of fun for a one-on-one parent-child adventure or a whole brood of kiddies. As you might assume from the name, you’re going to be building a rocket—a really fast one. The kit comes with almost everything you need (and easy-to-follow directions). The only thing you’re missing is the rocket’s fuel, which consists of vinegar and baking soda. It’s a real blast and you’ll want to do it again and again. Unlike so many science-based kits, you’ll actually be able to. The manufacturer claims the rocket can go more than 200 feet. Ours didn’t go quite that far but it definitely attracted a lot of neighborhood kids. $26 on http://poof-slinky.com

root vueRootVue (HSP Nature Toys)
If you want to see science literally come to life, this indoor garden is for you. It’s kind of like an ant farm, where clear plastic windows gave you a chance to see how ants build tunnels. But instead of insects, you and the kids get a chance to see how root vegetables grow—the leafy tops up, and the roots down. RootVue comes with “eight super-expanding grow mix wafers, three packets of seeds, identification labels, water wicks for self-watering system” It also has a simple water basin and drainage system, so it’s pretty much mess-free, and a 16-page booklet that has easy-to-follow instructions for doing a variety of experiments. Aside from the science part, there’s also a nutritional component: when kids grow their own veggies, they’ll be a lot more likely to eat them. $35 on http://www.hspnaturetoys.com

The Art of Summer

School’s out and it’s time to get your travel on. That often means a seemingly never-ending chorus of “Are we there yet?” and “I’m bored!” from the table- and smartphone-demanding minions who’ve set up shop in the back seat. We’ve got some good news for you: there are actually creative and stimulating ways to keep your kids entertained that don’t involve a screen. Really. Expect plenty of push back, though, but if you stand your ground, they’ll eventually come around. We promise.

scribble & doodle alex toys
Scribble & Doodle On the Go (Alex Toys)

Perfect for car or plane rides, or even for keeping kids busy in restaurants while they wait for their food. The hard cover book has 50 activity pages to color and play on and two pages of stickers. The “On the Go” book is, as you might suspect, about travel and travel activities. But there are other books in the series, including “Girly Swirly,” and “My First Scribble.” One warning: These books don’t come with crayons, so you’ll have to bring along your own. $11 each on http://www.alextoys.com/

color a backpack alex toysColor a Backpack—Cutie (Alex Toys)
A fun project and a fully functional travel pack? What’s not to love! This backpack is small enough that your kids will be able to schlepp it themselves.. Plus, it’ll also give them a fun art project to work on while you’re making your way from point A to point B. Cutie comes with five permanent markers, so kids can design their pack any way they like—and it’ll stay that way. If you’re worried about the kids drawing on their clothes or the car, you can always do the art part before you leave home. Or invest in a smock and seats covers. $28 at http://www.alextoys.com

desk to go alex toysDesk to Go (Alex Toys)
This on-the-go desk for little artists keeps all their masterpieces in one place. One side of the Desk to Go is a firm desktop surface, while the other is soft for resting on a child’s lap. Pockets on the side hold crayons, markers, and more, while the top has a handle that makes for easy carting from place to place. The desk comes with elastic straps to hold paper in place while your little Michelangelo creates, and the whole thing folds up and zips shut when the masterpiece is ready to be framed. Why didn’t they have these when we were kids? $20 from http://www.alextoys

car valet alex toysCar Valet (Alex Toys)
If you want something a little larger than the Desk to Go, or if your child likes to bring a wider variety of art supplies with them, check out the Car Valet. This baby packs so much into a small, tote-able package that no parent who travels should ever leave home without it. Ever. Your child can do just about anything he or she wants with this fold out art center. The play area is huge—about the size of a record (yes, we’re old enough to remember records)–and it’s only about as thick as your thumb. There are tons of pockets that you or the kiddos can load up with art supplies, decks of cards, paper, and anything else you can think of (except your smartphone). The Car Valet can fasten to the seat in front of the child and folds down, giving your child a nice workspace. When you get where you’re going, fold it back up, zip it shut, and you’re on your way in no time. $44 at http://www.alextoys.com

Seek and Maybe Ye Shall Find

What’s more fun than a good, old-fashioned game of Hide and Seek? This week we take a look at three fun, new twists on that timeless classic.

education outdoors snipe huntSnipe Hunt (Education Outdoors, Inc.)
If you’ve ever been to an outdoors camp, you probably spent some time hunting for snipe. Counselors and experienced campers would talk about the elusive creature, hand out sacs, and take newbie campers out into the woods to hunt. We’re not completely sure what the purpose of snipe hunts is, except to give the older campers a chance to laugh at the wide-eyed naiveté of the younger ones who, of course never catch anything. But now there’s a way to make snipe hunts a reality. The Snipe Hunt kit comes with two snipes (named Biela and Smartin) and a “nest.” If you play with teams, each team hides their snipe, and the first team to find the other’s and get it back to the nest wins. Alternatively, one person could hide one or two snipes and everyone else hunts. If they haven’t been found 2.5 minutes after being activated, the snipes start beeping. After five minutes, the eyes start to blink.  Can be played inside or outside, day or night. A fantastic family activity. Retails for under $25, batteries inlcuded. Ages 6 and up. http://www.educationoutdoors.net/

usaopoly treasure traxTreasure Trax: The All in One Scavenger Hunt Game (USAOpoly)
This is one of the most engaging games for the preschool set we’ve seen. The idea is pretty simple: scatter a series of clues that ultimately lead to some kind of reward (what that means is completely up to you). Treasure Trax comes with 60 brightly colored, illustrated, thick cards: 30 depicting locations, 18 with clues, and 12 with animals. There are several ways to play. One person (most likely an adult) can set up a step-by-step hunt. For example, you might start by giving the hunter(s) a card with a picture of a kitchen table. On the kitchen table, there’s a card with a picture of a bookcase. On the bookcase is another card leading somewhere else. For older kids, you can incorporate the color and animal cards and make a matching game. Start with an orange card and send the child off to find a card with a picture of something orange (a tiger, for example).  Treasure Trax is great for matching, focus, and memory. But we especially loved how flexible it is. You can have as many or as few steps as your child’s attention span will allow—but be warned: this game is so fun that attention spans have a tendency to get longer. It can be played with teams or as a one-on-one parent-child activity. You can play it indoors or out, and it’s a wonderful way to turn rainy days into adventures. For ages 3-5, but slightly older kids will have fun too. Retails for under $20 wherever you buy your toys or at http://usaopoly.com/

r&r games hide and seek safariHide & Seek Safari (R&R Games)
This is a moderately high-tech version of the old hotter-colder game. The box comes with two items: a monkey (or tiger, depending on which package you buy) and a wand. Someone activates the monkey (batteries included) and hides him somewhere. Everyone else activates the wand, which has LED lights that flash when you’re getting warmer and beeps when you’re really hot—like a Geiger counter. Unfortunately, the monkey has to be hidden in sight—the wand won’t work if he’s in the fridge or under the bed. But it’ll give hours of fun for kids 4-6. Retails for under $35. Additional wands are $13.99. http://www.rnrgames.com/