First Games - My picks for kids younger than three
Mark Hamburg
United States
Tacoma
Washington
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One of the most commonly asked questions that I see on Board Game Geek is "I have a two-year-old, what should I buy to play with him?" That was my question almost four years ago and this site proved to be a great resource. Now that my youngest child is three and soon to move to more complex fare, I thought I'd contribute my experiences with first games to the collective wisdom here. I've listed all of the games that I've played with kids under age three whether the experience was successful or not.

In general, I think that a game for this age group needs to be colorful, very simple, and probably have no decisions. It should be short. Kids this age can match shapes and colors, can learn to treat games gently, and can learn to take turns. I like playing competitive games at this age because they don't really care if they win or lose (nor do they even always understand the difference)- that's great, because it teaches them that losing is okay before it might occur to them that it's not.

My ratings below are as a game for children under the age of three; they are not necessarily my verdict on the game itself. And they're based on my experiences with my two (very different) kids, not my own opinion of the game (although that probably colors it to some degree). Since kids are different, you may have a very different experience than I did; I certainly don't claim that my experiences are definitive. Comments are welcome and encouraged! Also, feel free to add games that you've played with this age.

Kids this age can be very hard on games. They also have a tendency to put things in their mouth. So I've commented on the durability and safety of each of the games listed- I don't advocate leaving a toddler alone with any game, but some games require more careful supervision than others.
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1. Board Game: Go Away Monster! [Average Rating:6.57 Overall Rank:2013]
Mark Hamburg
United States
Tacoma
Washington
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This is my favorite game for kids under age three and a perfect choice for a first game. At age two and a half, my younger daughter instantly grasped the point and greatly enjoyed the game. The pieces are not a choking hazard, the game is cheap and not fragile, and it moves fast. It can be competitive or non-competitive. Although I suppose a kid could choke on the cardboard pieces, I think that's unlikely.

My rating for under three:
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2. Board Game: Cranium Cariboo [Average Rating:6.13 Overall Rank:3750]
Mark Hamburg
United States
Tacoma
Washington
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Our daughter got this for her third birthday, so I technically didn't play it with a child under three, but I wish that I had. This has been a huge hit with both of our kids (ages 3 and 5 1/2) they love dropping the balls in the holes and then finding them. Our three-year-old can't really play it by herself, but if an adult (or her older sister) helps her find the matches, she can do the rest. The game is pretty sturdy, but it could break if handled roughly, and the balls are potentiall choking hazards (though they seem a bit large to me) so constant adult supervision is required. If played with an adult, I think this would be appropriate for even the youngest gamer.

My rating for under three:
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3. Board Game: Candy Land Castle [Average Rating:4.80 Unranked]
Mark Hamburg
United States
Tacoma
Washington
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Another of my favorite games for this age group. The rules are insanely simple (pull a lever, a piece drops out, try to match it to your card) and the pieces are bright and colorful. Kids love the mechanism, and the youngest kids can understand it. A great choice as a first game.

The game can be somewhat expensive for a mass-market game (though I found it for about $13 before Christmas last year). It is breakable, but has survived our daughter so far. The pieces could be a choking hazard, so constant adult supervision is required.

My rating for under three:
 
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4. Board Game: Knuckling Knights [Average Rating:5.58 Overall Rank:8621]
Mark Hamburg
United States
Tacoma
Washington
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Both of my girls loved this one from two and a half onward. They had a little problem putting the right number of knights into the tower at first, but they really enjoyed the activity. "The Knight Game" was a regular feature of our bedtime routine for at least a month. I wouldn't recommend this one as a first game, but it makes a great third or fourth game.

The pieces are probably too small to be a choking hazard, but they could be swallowed. The game itself is not that fragile, but a two-year-old could quickly destroy it, so this one requires constant adult supervision.

My rating for under three:
 
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5. Board Game: Memory [Average Rating:4.71 Overall Rank:11137]
Mark Hamburg
United States
Tacoma
Washington
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Memory by the rules won't work with most kids under three, but you can use the pieces to make a matching game that does. Pick 15-20 pairs. Turn half upside down, leave the other half right side up. Take turns drawing one of the upside down pieces and matching it to the right side up ones. Our older daughter loved this activity. As a bonus, you get a game that is playable (if not fantastic) for ages 4-6. Other advantages of Memory are low price (I got ours for $0.32 from a thrift store) and wide availability.

My rating for under three:
(but only if you don't try to play by the rules)
 
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6. Board Game: Monkey Madness [Average Rating:5.30 Overall Rank:9786]
Mark Hamburg
United States
Tacoma
Washington
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This is a standard pick as a first game on Board Game Geek. It was my older daughter's favorite game for a while and I think it's a solid pick, but I prefer the games that I've listed above. Our kids both enjoyed this one quite a bit, though. This game is inexpensive, but the included plastic bag isn't very sturdy and the pieces are major choking hazards so be very careful with this one if you have a child who puts things in her mouth.

My rating for under three:
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7. Board Game: Go Diego Go! 123 Game [Average Rating:4.22 Unranked]
Mark Hamburg
United States
Tacoma
Washington
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I think this is a solid mass-market alternative to Monkey Madness. The game play is very similar, though games last a little longer since a player has to collect 10 objects rather than six. It's also a little harder, as you have to match pictures. But the cloth draw bag is sturdier than the plastic bag in Monkey Madness and the pieces are not choking hazards.

My rating for under three:
 
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8. Board Game: Crafty Badger [Average Rating:5.61 Overall Rank:8497]
Mark Hamburg
United States
Tacoma
Washington
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My older daughter got this two months before her third birthday and was immediately able to play and enjoy it. Her younger sister can't handle it yet, but I expect that she will be able to soon. This would not be a suitable choice as a first game, but it is a good choice for three-year-olds or advanced two-year-olds. The pieces are potentially a choking hazard, but the standard-sized die would be my biggest worry.

My rating for under three:
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9. Board Game: Die Naschbären [Average Rating:7.33 Unranked]
Mark Hamburg
United States
Tacoma
Washington
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This would not be a good choice as a first game, but it is a pretty solid choice as your child approaches age three. The pieces are very colorful and the game play is simple. This was a favorite of my older daughter from about 2 years, 10 months to age four; she lost interest after that. We let my younger daughter try just before her third birthday and it was popular with her as well. The game has lots of bits that a child could choke on or lose, so close adult supervision would be required if you try this one before age three.

My rating for under three:
 
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10. Board Game: Hopp hopp Häschen [Average Rating:6.19 Overall Rank:7162]
Mark Hamburg
United States
Tacoma
Washington
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This game is simple, involves color matching, has beautiful bits, and appropriate for the very youngest gamers. What's not to like? Well, I don't like the very fragile game board- my daughter was reaching for a piece when her hand slipped and crushed the game board. She was tired at the time, and I don't expect a game board to withstand abuse, but I think a game aimed at toddlers should be a little more sturdy than this, especially when it retails for $30 or more.

The pieces are choking hazards, so constant adult supervision is required (and even that might not be enough to protect the game).

My rating for under three:
(But only because the game is fragile)
 
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11. Board Game: Cat & Mouse [Average Rating:4.87 Overall Rank:10663]
Mark Hamburg
United States
Tacoma
Washington
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Another game that really works best with three-year-olds, but that might be playable a few months before a child's third birthday. The bits are absolutely marvelous, kids love dropping the mice though the holes in the giant cheese and watching them pop out down below. The pieces are potentially a choking hazard, so you do want to be careful with a child who puts things in her mouth.

My rating for under three:
(But I'd give it more for slightly older kids)
 
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12. Board Game: Hisss [Average Rating:5.61 Overall Rank:7034]
Mark Hamburg
United States
Tacoma
Washington
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I don't think that the game is quite simple enough nor are the bits quite exciting enough to work as a first game. This one might be a good step-up game, but it's not my favorite- it never really captured the imagination of my older daughter and my younger one isn't ready for it yet. But the game is inexpensive, widely available, sturdy and not a choking hazard.

My rating for under three:
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13. Board Game: Leapin' Lily Pads [Average Rating:5.41 Overall Rank:9002]
Mark Hamburg
United States
Tacoma
Washington
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My older daughter was able to play this one at age two-and-a-half and we played constantly for the next six months. But I wouldn't recommend it for most two-year-olds, it requires way too much focus and concentration for my younger daughter. If you have a child with an unusual ability to focus, this can be a good choice, though. It doesn't have much toy value and the pieces are choking hazards. I'm glad that I bought this one, and I recommend it as a game for older kids, but I generally wouldn't for this age group.

My rating for under three:
(But I'd give it more for older kids)
 
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14. Board Game: Loopin' Louie [Average Rating:6.98 Overall Rank:429]
Mark Hamburg
United States
Tacoma
Washington
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This game isn't really appropriate for two-year-olds, but I'm going to include it because my daughter loves playing it. She understood the point at 2 years, 4 months, but lacks the coordination to actually play it well. But she still loves watching Louie go around and scare her chickens. I think it was more a toy than a game for her and I would not buy it for this age group, but if you have it anyway it's worth bringing out.

The game is expensive (in the US, anyway), fragile, and a choking hazard so you'll only want to do this one with very close adult supervision.

My rating for under three:
(But I'd give it more for older kids, or adults)
 
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15. Board Game: Gulo Gulo [Average Rating:6.90 Overall Rank:637]
Mark Hamburg
United States
Tacoma
Washington
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This is a popular choice on Board Game Geek for small kids, but it's flopped in our family. My five-year-old doesn't like it and my three-year-old is too young. I think this is a neat design and hope to play it some day, but based on my experience, I would not recommend it for kids under three. I think it probably works best with 3 1/2 and up, maybe even age four.

The game is fragile (the pole can be broken) and the pieces are major choking hazards so constant adult supervision is required.

My rating for under three:
(Based on my kids- I think it's a good game for older kids)
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16. Board Game: Candy Land [Average Rating:3.17 Overall Rank:11174]
Mark Hamburg
United States
Tacoma
Washington
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This one is so familiar that I hardly feel I need to comment on it. I don't think it's a great game, but it's probably not quite as bad as the rating would lead you to believe. I don't think it's the best game for this age group, though. When played by the rules, the game doesn't move fast enough for short attention spans. Moving a piece on a track is more difficult than putting pieces on a board or simple matching. And the penalty for a bad draw can be too severe.

There are other ways to play this one (draw two cards and choose one), but that makes it more complicated. It might be okay for older kids using that rule, but as a first game there are better alternatives. The game is sturdy, cheap, and doesn't have any real choking hazards.

My rating for under three:
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17. Board Game: 4 First Games [Average Rating:5.03 Overall Rank:10107]
Mark Hamburg
United States
Tacoma
Washington
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Three of the games in this package are playable by kids under the age of three, but I wouldn't recommend any of them. The artwork is dated and unexciting and the games are tedious if played by the rules in the box. The games can teach colors, taking turns, and matching, but so can most other games that are actually fun. If you insist on buying this, it might be okay as a first game, but why would you buy it when you could buy Candyland Castle, Go Away Monster, Cranium Cariboo, or other games that are actually fun instead?

Kids could choke on the pawns and the dice.

My rating for under three:
 
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18. Board Game: Snail's Pace Race [Average Rating:5.31 Overall Rank:10616]
Mark Hamburg
United States
Tacoma
Washington
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This was one of the first games that we purchased for our older daughter and I tried it with her shortly after age two. Moving snails along a path was really too sophisticated for her at that age; I think games with simple matching of shapes and colors work better for the youngest gamers. By the time she was able to really play it (around age three), she sort of lost interest.

This might be an okay game for older kids, but it's not one of my favorites. Some people like the cooperative aspect, but I actually prefer introducing competitive games early as I think it helps kids learn to not make a big deal out of losing (and winning). The dice are potentially choking hazards, but our daughter never tried to put them in her mouth.

My rating for under three:
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