7 board games for kids who hate to lose

Cooperative board games let you play with your kids instead of against them.
Family playing board game

Photo: iStockphoto

You’ve tried your best to institute a family game night, you really have. But when you have one (or more) ultra-competitive kids in your clan, what should be a fun, educational bonding experience quickly turns into meltdown central.

If your kid freaks out when you or a sibling beats him at a board game, it might be enough for you to want to pack the games away for good. But there’s a solution to this problem that you may not have ever heard of: cooperative board games.

Cooperative board games are those where, instead of players trying to beat one another, they work together to beat the game or to reach a common goal. Players might be trying to transport relics out of a haunted house before it’s overrun with ghosts; racing to get mole rats to an escape pod before they’re bitten by snakes; or working to close off a thief’s escape routes.

For kids who hate to lose, cooperative board games are a better option than the types of games that feature player elimination—like, say, Monopoly, where the eliminated players have to just sit and watch everyone else have fun. Yes, you can still lose at a cooperative board game, but you lose as a group and you lose to the game—which is a lot better than losing to your little sister.

Here are seven cooperative board games that work for both kids and their parents (because we know all too well the pain of trying to remain awake during an endless game of Candy Land).

Bandido board game

1. Bandido
1-4 players

In Bandido, a prisoner is trying to make a break for it…don’t let him get away! Each player has a hand of three cards, each of which depicts part of a tunnel: a straightaway, bend, branch or dead end. On your turn, you add a piece to the maze—trying your best to close off all escape routes—and then draw another card. The tricky part: Just when you think you’re about to block off the thief for good, someone invariably has to play a card that branches the tunnel off into one or more different directions!

Best for: Players ages 4 and up who enjoy mazes and other puzzles.

MMM! Board game

2. Mmm!
2-4 players

You’re a hungry mouse! Can you nosh on everything in the pantry before the cat catches you? On each turn, you roll three dice—each of which shows five types of food and an X—then place at least one die on the corresponding food on the game board. Each food on the Mmm! board consists of 2-4 bite-sized pieces. You can then re-roll the remaining dice if you wish…but if you roll all Xs or can’t finish a piece of food before you place all the dice, the mean cat takes one step closer to the pantry.

Once you get good at the base game, you can increase the challenge by using the other side of the game board, which ramps up the difficulty.

Best for: Players ages 5 and up who like fast-paced fun.

Mole Rats in Space

3. Mole Rats in Space
2-4 players

It’s hard to believe that mole rats have explored more of the universe than man, but it’s true. Unfortunately, to continue exploring, you and your fellow mole rats need to pick up four pieces of equipment and make it to the escape pod before you run out of time, get bitten by a snake (your mortal enemy!), or accidentally get shot out into the cold darkness of space.

On each turn, you have one card to play that tells you to move one or more mole rats…but which way will you go? Can you climb the ladders toward your escape pod? Can you avoid snakebites? In Mole Rats in Space, you’ll also be forced to move or spawn snakes, while trying to keep them away from the ladders and usher everyone toward safety.

Best for: Kids ages 7 and up who are ready to handle a more advanced version of Chutes & Ladders.

Ghost Fightin Treasure Hunters

4. Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters
2-4 players

Get all eight hidden jewels out of the house before six of the rooms are haunted by ghosts. On each turn, you roll dice to determine how many spaces you move and whether you have to place a ghost in a room, and different dice to battle any ghosts in the rooms you end up in. Once a room has three ghosts, it’s considered haunted. The hard part: The jewels need to be removed from the house in numerical order, and you don’t know what number is on each jewel token until you enter the room where it’s located and flip it over. Fun fact: Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters won the Kids’ Game of the Year Award in Germany in 2014.

Best for: Players ages 8 and up who like planning and risk-taking.

The Game board game

5. The Game
1-5 players

To win The Game, players have to discard all 98 cards in the deck onto four discard piles. Simple, right?

But there’s a double twist: 1) Two piles start with 1 and have to be played on in ascending order, and two start with 99 and have to be played on in descending order. 2) On a turn, you must play at least two cards from your hand—and you can’t share what numbers you have, which leads to fun discussion as you try to describe what you want to play next without using actual numbers. You’ll also find six cards with fire on them; when you play one of these, the card has to be covered by the end of the next player’s turn or you lose.

One saving grace is that you can play a card that’s 10 higher or lower than the number on top of a pile, meaning you can sometimes dial back the damage. For example, if there’s an 85 on top of the pile that’s going up, you can play a 75 on it, giving other players more chances to get rid of their own high-numbered cards.

Best for: Kids 8 and up who have solid math skills. Grown-ups also love this game; it was nominated for Germany’s Game of the Year in 2016.

Harry Potter board game

6. Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle
2-4 players

Who doesn’t want to take down Voldemort and save the wizarding world? Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle consists of seven small boxed games. As you go through each game in order, you relive the stories of Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Neville during their seven years at the famous School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

You start each game with a handful of spells that let you attack villains, gain influence, and add new cards to your personal deck of spells. If your magical crew defeats the villains before they take control of all the locations—which include places like The Burrow and Hogwarts Express—you can move on to the next scenario. With each new year, you shuffle new allies, items, and spells into the main deck, giving you access to more powerful weapons that will help you face off against Dementors, Bellatrix Lestrange, Fenrir Greyback, and (of course) Voldemort himself.

Best for: Harry Potter fans ages 11 and up. Patience is required; the game takes up to an hour to play.

board game mysterium

7. Mysterium
2-7 players

Surely you’ve played Clue, the classic deduction game that’s been around for more than 60 years. But real detectives work together to solve a case—so for a change of pace when you’re in the mood to solve a murder, turn to Mysterium. In this game, one player takes on the role of a ghost that can give clues about the suspect, weapon, and location of the crime—but the ghost can communicate only by showing the detectives colorful and ambiguous dream cards that they must then interpret. “Hey, I’ll bet those books falling from the sky means the old woman who looks like a librarian committed the crime. But wait! The ghost also showed a comfy recliner balancing on a tightrope, so maybe I should choose the man sitting in front of a fireplace?”

Best for: Creative thinkers ages 10 and up who like to tell—and interpret—mysterious tales.

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