Being the father of an almost five-year-old girl during the holidays, I know well the struggle (and desire) of finding a non-Barbie, non-Princess, non-iPhone gift that will be well-received. (Enough hyphens for you?)
Fortunately, being a board gamer, I'm aware of other options. Kids' games seem to be making headway in our hobby, and I'm glad. Rather than having to wait for Gulo Gulo to get a reprint, we can check out companies like Peaceable Kingdom that are releasing their own fun and interesting games targeting the younger set.
Let's look at Mermaid Island, because its virtually empty listing is depressing, and my review will have no immediate competition.
Mermaid Island is a cooperative game (as are all of Peaceable Kingdom's current games) where 2-6 players try to get three mermaids back to their castle before the Sea Witch.
1 Game Board
4 Wand Tokens
1 Sea Witch with Stand
The components aren't extravagant, but they get the point across. At less than $20 online, you get what you pay for (and that's not a bad thing). All the pieces and the box have a matte-like finish. It reminds me of the Pandemic box. The Sea Witch has been in and out of her stand many times, and the cardboard is still holding up well. It seems Peaceable Kingdom knows what kind of beating their products are likely to take.
I've never played Max, but from what I understand of it, it's the same here. At the beginning of each turn, the active player will spin the spinner. The spinner has 6 spots (2 ones, 2 twos, 2 Sea Witch) that will tell you what you need to do. If it lands on a numbered space, move any one mermaid that many spaces toward the castle. If it lands on a Sea Witch space, move the Sea Witch one space toward the castle (note: the Sea Witch starts the game five spaces ahead of the mermaids). If ever the Sea Witch and a mermaid ever end their movement on the same space, that mermaid will be sent back to START. There are two bridges the mermaids can use as shortcuts if they land on the appropriate spots. There are also four spaces which will grant the players a want token. Wand tokens can be used at any time to move the Sea Witch back one space. Once used, they're out of the game. If the mermaids all make it back to the castle before the Sea Witch, the players win. If the Sea Witch gets there before all three mermaids, the players lose.
Thoughts: (yes I have those)
Mermaid Island made it under the Christmas tree with only the back of the box (read online at that) to recommend it. I am thrilled at how well it's been received by my daughter. She likes Daddy being on her "team," and everyone winning together. There are no cards she needs to fumble around with, and the gameplay is intuitive for her. She loves the theme, and its girly-ness ensures her little brother won't want anything to do with it.
She's starting to be able to plan her moves a little, seeing that moving the pink mermaid (her favorite, of course) two spaces will make her miss the shortcut, so she should choose a different mermaid this time. It is hard for me to watch her make sub-optimal moves, which is funny since I do it all the time in MY games.
I don't have too many negative things to say, so we'll scrape the bottom of the barrel:
The components are a little lack-luster, but you wouldn't get this game for $13 if each mermaid and the Sea Witch were a sculpted mini, and the castle had a working drawbridge.
The theme parks this one well into the little girl category, which is a shame since there is no 'boy' equivalent. Again, there's always Max.
All in all, this is a great introduction to board gaming for you pre-schooler/kindergartener. I will definitely be checking in on Peaceable Kingdom come next Christmas.
To all my geekfriends, I know I haven't been around much lately, but BGG is still my homepage and everyone is still in my heart everyday. Just so damn busy!
It's been a several years since your review, but I'm thankful to find it. I have a niece who is almost 4, and was looking for more information on this game since I want to give it as a Christmas gift this year. Thank you!