In this article, I’m answering a question from Tabletop Bellhop patron Juho Rutila, who is looking for board games for a grade school gaming event.
If you’re interested in playing board games in grade school, read on to find a number of games broken into different categories to make it easier to find games perfect for your specific group of kids.
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Great games for grade schoolers to play in school,
Juho Rutila, Tabletop Bellhop Patreon patron, wrote to ask,
“I was tasked to run a board game session for one hour in a school event. There were six players from first grade to fourth grade and I had no idea how much they have played before.
What kind of games would you make them play? Would you try cramming in lots of games into one hour or one longer game? How much help should you give to those kids playing against each other?
Thanks, Juho for the great question and for helping to spread the board game love to a new generation of gamers!
Before I get to my game recommendations I want to say a bit about the topic of gaming with kids. Here are some things you need to keep in mind whenever planning a gaming event with kids.
All kids are different. What’s easy for one kid could be very difficult for another and often that has nothing to do with age. Be sure to realize this both when picking games and when actually playing. For any game night with kids, you should have multiple game options available as well as backup plans for when things go south.
Games are meant to be fun. This is especially important to remember when playing games with kids. While most hobby gamers are all about winning, perfecting their strategies and following the rules explicitly, these things shouldn’t be as important when playing with kids. Don’t worry about being too strict or stringent with the rules. As long as the kids are having fun, you might want to consider letting them run with whatever it is they are doing, which may be something very far from the actual rules of the game they are playing.
Make it a learning experience. Since we are talking about an in school event, education should be part of the experience. This is a great time to teach lessons on sportsmanship, being a gracious winner or not being a poor loser, taking turns, working together, and more structured play. If this is going to be a recurring event you may want to slowly add in more rules, lessons, and structure as time goes on. For example, you might first let kids play with the components and then later move on to more structured gameplay, ending with everyone playing by the book.
Consider Game Length. Juho specifically asked about playing one long game or multiple short ones. I think you are best off with short games that can be played multiple rounds and still be fun. Not only is it easier to keep a kid’s focus for a shorter time, but this also lets the kids swap up the games they are playing and try more than one game if they wish.
Have a variety of games to pick from but not too many. Kids love having a choice, it’s empowering. So you want to have more than one game available to be played. That said, you don’t want so many options that the kids get overwhelmed. If this is a recurring event, begin with only a couple of options and then start offering more options as the group gets more comfortable with each other. If a particular game proves to be very popular you may want to bring multiple copies of that game to future events.
If you are interested in a more in depth discussion on this topic check out The Tabletop Bellhop Gaming Podcast episode 146, Back in Class. For more tips on gaming with kids check out my Raising the Next Generation of Tabletop Gamers article, and for more game suggestions check out Some of the Best Kids Board Games and how to get Kids to Play Them.
Now on to the game suggestions! I’ve broken this list into sections, with games grouped by type.
Great Cooperative Games for Grade Schoolers:
Cooperative games are perfect for gaming events with kids, especially younger kids, because they let the children work together to win and avoid any issues due to competitiveness. Everyone wins, or loses, together.
Cooperative games also have an advantage (or possibly disadvantage) in that shy or uncomfortable kids can fade into the background. Another plus is that adults can help out without giving the player they are helping any advantage over the others. This style of game is also great for letting younger kids play the same game along with older kids.
Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters – This is the one game you are going to notice on every list I create that focuses on kids’ games. This cooperative ghost fighting game is still the best kids’ game I’ve ever played. Our family still enjoys it to this day, even though my kids are much older now.
The big change that’s happened since I first recommended this one is that there is now an expansion, which I strongly recommend. You can read more about it in my Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters Creepy Cellar review.
Overall this is a fantastic game for grade school kids, as young as Kindergarten, that also manages to be a lot of fun for adults. The silly theme, cute pieces, and simple to learn gameplay are all great for young ones.
The only issue I can see with using Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters during a grade school gaming event is that it only plays four players, so you may need multiple copies.
Robot Turtles – Robot Turtles is an excellent basic programming game perfect for a grade school setting. While this game only comes with four turtles for four players to move, there is no reason multiple kids can’t work together to code one robot.
My one problem with this game is that it doesn’t include many scenarios in the box. Thankfully the system is simple enough, and you get lots of extra pieces, so it’s easy to make up your own stuff. I’m sure creative kids and teachers will come up with plenty of ideas on how to stretch this game out and improve it.
In a school atmosphere, I can see taking this game and blowing it up. I imagine putting up a huge grid on the board or floor, making your own versions of the cards and setting up rally races, battle royals, and more.
I think the key to enjoying Robot Turtles is to use it as a toolkit for making your own programming adventures.
Flash Point Fire Rescue – Flash Point is a board game that lets the kids pretend to be firemen, something I know myself and my friends would have been excited about when I was that age.
This cooperative board game has the advantage of playing six players right out of the box with an expansion that lets you add more. It also offers two sets of rules, a pretty simple family version plus more complex advanced rules. This lets you start off with the simple rules and slowly add in things as kids get used to the game.
In addition to the base game, there are a number of expansions for Flash Point that add additional characters, roles and maps.
Other Cooperative Games for Kids – Some other cooperative games that could be great for a one hour grade school event include; Outfoxed, Quirky Circuits, The Mind, Slide Quest, Talisman Legendary Tales and Castle Panic.
Great Dexterity Games for Kids:
I am a huge fan of dexterity games. The great thing about dexterity games is their accessibility. They don’t require you to know anything about them before you play and they are very easy to teach. They are also great for kids of all ages. Something kids will probably love is that they often have an advantage over adults in many dexterity games, due to their smaller fingers and steadier hands.
Go Cuckoo – This is a simple dexterity game that kids of all ages can play, I’ve even played it with preschoolers. Go Cuckoo is pretty much the opposite of pick up sticks. Every round you are pulling sticks and using them to build a nest, a nest that you will be trying to balance eggs on. Once a player has successfully played all of their eggs they then place the large cuckoo mini to win.
The only issue I see with Go Cuckoo is that it’s not a high player count game. You are going to want multiple copies or have other games on hand that the kids can play.
Learn more about this fun dexterity game in my Go Cuckoo review.
Pitchcar – Imagine the look on a group of kids’ faces when they show up to the room the gaming event is being held in and see a wooden race track running all around the room. That’s the kind of thing you can set up with Pichcar. If you have the right expansions, you can even have things like ramps and bridges that run across desks.
I’m a huge fan of this flicking game and I find that it works great with all ages. One suggestion I have is allowing younger kids to have two flicks for each older kid’s one flick, at least until they get the hang of it.
The biggest disadvantage here would be cost, as Pitchcar can be an expensive game to pick up, especially once you add in the expansion packs. I suggest talking to the school and perhaps the board to see if there’s a budget for activities like this and reaching out to Eagle-Gryphon Games, the publisher, directly as they may have some form of educators discount.
Animal Upon Animal – There are a ton of different versions of this game out there (HABA has put out a unicorn version, a dinosaur version, a Christmas version and a mini-travel version, plus there are numerous knock off animal balance games out there.). They are all reasonably priced, and with a little rule tweaking, you can combine them all into one massive game. The basic premise of this game is to place all of your wooden animals onto the growing stack, with a die roll telling you which animal you need to place next. It’s a really basic stacking game that becomes interesting due to the uniquely shaped pieces.
This is a great game for a grade school event because younger kids can just play with the pieces, whereas older kids can play by the rules. I would suggest picking up multiple sets so that you can have one giant game or multiple games going at once.
Must have competitive games for grade school level kids:
While some kids like to work together others thrive when there’s competition. Here are some great competitive games that I think kids in a grade school setting will enjoy.
Hey, That’s My Fish! – This was one of my kids’ favourite games growing up, one that they still enjoy playing to this day. My youngest child actually got into this Hey, That’s My Fish! at a really young age and picked it up quickly. Sure she didn’t really get the “take that” aspects of the game at the time but she still loved it. This is another one where you can buy multiple sets and make a huge iceberg for multiple players to play over. One thing I would do is try to find the various different printings of this game as each has different layering pieces for the penguins, that way you can easily add more players.
Qwirkle – My wife suggested I add this one to the list because of how often she’s played it with our kids.
Qwirkle is a pattern matching game. I would probably leave it at that for the younger grades, just having them play with the tiles and make patterns. You can then add in the placement limitations and Scrabble-like scoring for older kids.
While you could buy multiple sets and combine them, I recommend just having more than one group playing at once with each having their own set of tiles. Another great part about this game for grade school level kids is that it’s easy to clean.
You could also consider Qwirkle Cubes, as a slightly more forgiving alternative.
The Magic Labyrinth – I have noticed that kids seem to be fascinated by magnets, I know I was. The Magic Labyrinth is a game that has players moving through an invisible maze while trying to collect ingredients. The maze is created through the use of magnets and an upside down board.
The big downfall here is that the game only plays four players at a time. However, games are quick and players could also work in teams.
Great games for kids who have started reading:
One of the issues you might run into while running a board gaming event at a grade school is that the younger kids might not be able to read yet. Because of this, I pulled out some games that rely heavily on reading and put them in their own category. Note these games may still work with younger kids if they have some help from a teacher or older kids.
Telestrations – If what you want is a game that plays big groups and can get everyone laughing you need to check out Telestrations.
This is a formalized version of The Telephone Game where players draw something based on a clue, then pass their drawing on to the next player who then has to guess what it is, that guess then that gets passed along and the next player draws whatever the previous player guessed.
What I would do for an at school version is start with the Telestrations Twelve Player Party Pack and then base the clues on things that the kids know. Either go through the cards that come with the game and pick and choose, or perhaps even better make up your own clue cards tied to current lesson plans or things about the school and their area.
Learn more about this great party game through my Telestrations 12 Player Party Pack Review.
The Codenames series of games – I’ve recommended Codenames here on the blog many times and while we personally prefer playing Codenames Duet, I think, for a grade school event the version of Codenames you want will depend on the kids.
If your group enjoys forming teams and competing against each other the original game or a licensed version will probably be best. If you want to avoid bad feelings and cut off any potential fighting, Codenames Duet will probably work better. With younger kids, you also have the option of Codenames Pictures. You can also take a look at the XXL versions, which have cards that are double the size, which may make playing in a classroom easier.
One thing I would definitely suggest you do, no matter which version of Codenames you go with, is to match up the teams so that younger kids are working with older kids.
If you want to know more about our favourite version of Codenames check out my Codenames Duet review.
King of Tokyo – What kid doesn’t love giant monsters? Especially when one is a giant penguin and another is a mecha cat?
This king of the hill themed dice game seems like it would be great for all ages until you sit down and remember there are powers that you can buy for your characters and you need to be able to read to know what those do. Due to this, I only recommend King of Tokyo for older kids. Though you could always pair up a non-reader with a reader to facilitate play.
The high player count on this one makes it good for big groups, though be aware that there is player elimination and might want to have a copy of something simple and quick, like say Go Cuckoo, on hand for the eliminated players to play while the game finishes up.
Great Roleplaying Games for Grade School Gaming:
A grade school gaming event doesn’t actually have to be a board game event. There are a number of great pen and paper roleplaying games out there that are great for younger kids.
Here are some of my favourites:
Mermaid Adventures – This was the first RPG I taught my kids, and it is still my favourite for introducing children to roleplaying. Mermaid Adventures not only has a fun family friendly theme, but it also features a very simple system that kids can pick up very quickly. I also appreciate that it only needs standard six sided dice, which you may already have in your classrooms.
The problem with this game is finding a copy of the original printing, which was a standalone RPG. Sadly Third Eye Games has re-released Mermaid Adventures as a supplement for their Pip System Corebook and it is much less kid friendly. You could still use the Pip System version to play with kids, but it’s going to take some tweaking by the adults.
Learn more about this great entry level RPG in my Mermaid Adventures review.
Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Begins – When you talk about roleplaying, at least in today’s world, it seems like everyone knows about Dungeons & Dragons. The game is arguably more popular than ever and there’s a good chance that some of the kids in your school, especially those showing up to a gaming event, are already into shows like Critical Role.
Adventure Begins is a great high improv way to get kids into some of the core concepts of D&D and show off some of the unique creatures of that world. This one was actually a huge hit at my own kids’ grade school. Some teachers started a D&D club where the older grades were playing with the D&D Starter Set while the younger grades were playing D&D Adventure Begins.
One thing to note, this game doesn’t actually use the D&D rules. This isn’t D&D, it is more like “a game inspired by D&D”, and isn’t actually a good way to learn to play the full roleplaying game. You can read more about that in my Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Begins review.
Magical Kitties Save the Day – This is the most controversial game on this list. For starters, Magical Kitties Save the Day has an amazing premise that kids love. Who doesn’t want to play a magical cat trying to solve their people’s problems? Added to that, the system is quick and easy to learn and play. For a player, it’s not much more difficult than Mermaid Adventures, which I recommended above.
The problem is on the side of the person running the game. While this is a great game to introduce kids to RPGs, it’s not a great game for someone taking on the Game Master role who has never run an RPG before.
Plus, once you run the one-shot library themed adventure in the back of the book, you are on your own to keep the kids coming back week after week. The included system for creating adventures requires a lot of prep work.
That said, if you can find the time to do that extra work (and maybe get some kids to help you), I think you could keep a group of kids interested in Magical Kitties for a long, long, time.
Other RPGs for grade school level kids – Some other great RPGs that you can play with grade school kids include; Hero Kids, No Thank You Evil, Happy Birthday Robot, Little Wizards, and of course Dungeons & Dragons.
There you have a number of games, which my kids have enjoyed, that I think would be perfect for a grade school gaming event.
Did you play tabletop games when you were in grade school? Tell us all about it in the comments below!