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7 brain-boosting board games to help kids think outside the box

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

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Key Takeaways
  • Many popular board games offer little more than colorful distractions, lacking both thoughtful design and 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.
This article was first published on Big Think in March 2019. It was updated in April 2023.

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 tabletop 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 hoarding 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 game’s mechanics, not its exploits.

“[Settlers is] teaching Americans that board games don’t have to be either predictable fluff aimed at kids or competitive, hyper-intellectual 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 the evolutionary arms race, with an airy excitement that’s certainly lighter than a textbook.

“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 on the next. And with only a 5×5 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.


This one’s for the younger kiddos. Dragonwood tasks players with venturing into the titular forest to fight vicious yet cartoony 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.

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 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 also their opponents’. As a bonus, it introduces children to some of history’s most fascinating civilizations.

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.


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 a fun, colorful presentation. Children become horticulturists and discover botanical concepts like, well, photosynthesis with playful mechanics.

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 tabletop 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.

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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 the 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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