A small paper tag attached to the banana-shaped cloth case holding the Bananagrams game promises it to be "the anagram game that will drive you BANANAS!!!" The components looked solid, and I am a sucker for word games, so I figured I'd take the risk (what else is disability insurance for, after all?) This review covers my first impressions and experiences from two games with a different mix of players, and my thoughts on how Bananagrams stacks up as a family game.
Bananagrams comes in a sturdy banana-shaped zippered cloth bag. It has a small paper tag that indicates it is designed for 2 to 6 players or more - yes, it actually says "or more", and since there is a solitaire variant in the rules I suppose it should really say "1 or more players" - from 7 to 97 years old. The lack of excessive packaging is refreshing, but if you have young children you'll probably want to keep the bag out of reach to avoid missing letter tiles. Inside the banana bag is a plastic bag holding a set of 144 letter tiles and one folded rules sheet that is printed in type that may be too small for some to easily read. The letter tiles are off-white bakelite with black incised letters and are really quite nice. There is no board - to play the game, each player lays out tiles directly on a table or similar surface.
The rules sheet says that each game can take as little as five minutes - both games we played took longer.
All 144 tiles are laid out in the middle of the table and then each player takes a set number of tiles (according to the number of players). The rule sheet states that any one player can begin the game by saying "Split!" but we decided that it made sense to have the youngest person start the game. (We also decided not to use the inane phrases suggested by the rules, and stuck with "Ready, Set, Go".) Every player then turns their tiles over and starts assembling words out of them, crossword-style (reading left to right or up to down). A player may rearrange their words at any time. When any player has used all of their letters in connecting crossword format, that player says "Peel" (or "Draw", in our case) and every player must take another tile from the center. This continues until there are fewer tiles in the center than there are players. Any player may return a difficult-to-use letter back to the center, but must draw three tiles in exchange. There are no turns. The first player to use all their tiles says "Bananas!" (or "Done!") and is the winner, as long as their words are all correctly spelled. As in Scrabble, proper nouns are not allowed. There are a few variations in the rules, including one where the tiles are divided evenly among the players at the beginning and there is no drawing of tiles during the game.
PLAYING WITH CHILDREN:
Although the game is designed for ages 7 and up, it seems to be a little tough for the under 10 crowd. The time pressure in particular may be unpleasant for competitive children, and adults with larger vocabularies have a distinct advantage. However, the free-form nature of the game allows for plenty of variation to help children compete. I wouldn't recommend the base game for children under 10. From a child's point of view, this is strategically lighter than Scrabble (no board positioning strategy involved) but may be more frustrating.
The game's components have a nice look and feel, although the banana theme is goofy. The minimal packaging is convenient - the bag can be tucked into the corner of a game shelf, or on top of a bookcase. The base game and variations are very simple. We didn't like the silly words for standard game actions like drawing tiles, etc. At $15, the price was not a problem.
I'm not really sure how to rate this game for family play, ultimately. Using some creativity, the tiles could be useful for plenty of word-related play. If the children in your group enjoy reading, spelling competitions, or the like, they will probably enjoy this game. Keeping track of all the tiles and separating the center pile from each player's work in progress requires plenty of table space, and for some reason the minimal tiles-and-bag packaging makes me nervous about losing tiles (my only reservation about the lack of a box).
It's an OK game for adults, particularly those who enjoy Scrabble. I bought the game planning to play it with my mother between Scrabble duels, and I think it will work well in that situation. As games go, it's a light filler, with no points to track, no strategic considerations beyond basic crosswording strategy, and it plays quickly. That being said, there's certainly plenty of space on my game shelf for light filler games. I don't think it will be hitting the table on family game night with my daughter for a few years yet, though I may use the tiles to demonstrate anagrams. I'd resist buying this as a gift for other families unless you know them well and their kids are "wordy".